Sunday, May 21, 2006

Not Your Grandfather's Coachella

"What. The. Fuck. Did. I. Get. Myself. Into." Those were my precise thoughts on 2:35 p.m. on Saturday, April 29, as I stood at the entrance of the Coachella Valley Music Festival. I had just walked 40 minutes in the scorching desert heat, caked in grime and sweat, only to now find myself swallowed into the amorphous mass of Gummo-refugees clamoring to get in. When I arrived, security were ushering ticketholders in at the rate of sixteen per hour. With appoximately eight hundred people waiting, I'd figure I'd get into the Coachella polo grounds just in time for the next Oscar ceremony. The wait was sheer agony, moreso because nobody was sure when it is we'd actually get in. Thirty minutes passed before some brainiac figured out that they can't frisk every single person with the staff they have.

So finally the floodgates opened, and thousands of white suburban teens were made very happy.

Entry aside, Coachella is as well-run a festival as you'll see. The amenities are plentiful, the food is better than what they serve at Staples or Dodger Stadium, and the spatial layout convenient. And the mish-mash of indie boutiques, corporate sponsorship, and Burning Man-styled community art is either pleasantly distracting or an avoidable sideshow according to taste. Goldenvoice makes it work, or at least doesn't get in the way. If only they'd institute a ban on ironic t-shirts (spotted: "You looked better on MySpace", "Go to Hell. I mean it.", "Worst. Coachella. Ever."), I would count myself as a very satisfied customer.

Then there's the music. The Coachella organizers have, in their infinite wisdom, decide to schedule a bunch of hot bands opposite one another. The scheduling conflicts leave the intrepid Coachella-goer with only three choices:

(1) the DJ Q-Bert approach. Hop from stage to stage (or tent to tent) in 20 minute intervals, sampling half a set or even just two or three songs from every act that one can humanly cram in.
(2) the sensible approach. Pick four acts you really want to see and take in the whole set.
(3) Saddleback Ranch approach: line-up for two hours to get your drink bracelet just so you can enter the beer garden and be magically transported to a cheesy Sunset Blvd. club on Saturday night, complete with bleach blonde hos in stilettos and squared jaw frat boys in baseball caps (striped shirts, thankfully, were nowhere to be found).

Going against my slacker instincts, I decided to take the caffeinated #1 option and hop from tent to tent. But day 1 left me so exhausted that I stayed in to watch that amazing Lakers OT win over the Suns before sauntering into the festival at a quarter past 5 on Day 2, when I was forced to go with a more sensible approach. This explains why I covered so many more acts on Day 1.

Day 1


My Morning Jacket. Let the record reflect that the commenters were right and I was wrong: MMJ just rocked out. Refreshing to hear such superior craftsmanship after the misfires I endured earlier in the day (see below). Probably my favorite overall set at Coachella.

Daft Punk. The consensus best act of Coachella, and why not? The French duo emerged in full robot gear and just pwn3d the tent, taking apart their classic party album Discovery layer by layer and bringing the revelers into a frenzy with cerebral yet intense builds like the best house DJs. Blew pretty much everyone away, including the skeptics among us expecting bubble gum dance tracks.


Devendra Banhart. Looks like Jesus, acts like Mary, sings like Satan.* Call it "freak folk" or whatever, Banhart's music is well-nigh uncategorizable, and his set, which feels like a bunch of drunk, exceptionally talented low lifes noodling in a dive bar, turned out to be sporadically brilliant. If you can endure Banhart's prissy diva gesticulations, you'll find yourself mesmerized by Banhart's Daniel Johnston-like vocals in blues numbers like "Long Haired Child."

[*] Homage to a t-shirt spotted at Fenway Park describing Johnny Damon: "Looks like Jesus, acts like Judas, throws like Mary."

Kanye West. College Dropout and Late Registration are two of my most-played discs of the last couple of years, and so Kanye's set is satisfying in its familiarity even if it lacked the souped-up production values that he's known for. Kanye tried to get by by unfurling some shtick for the white folk (doing a Molly Ringwald dance to "Take On Me") in between a run through of his big hits "All Falls Down", "Gold Digger," "Jesus Walks", etc., backed by a string section. Wish he'd performed my favorite track, "Drive Slow", but let's face it: the songs sound better on the album. Jon Brion = genius.

Common. The stylin' rapper had energy to spare, but the crowd, clearly unfamiliar with his material, wouldn't even summon up the energy to chant "Go, go, go." Common brought his game; the crowd didn't buy it.

Franz Ferdinand. One of the few acts who managed to fill the vast expanse of space with their thunderous sound. I imagine they'll jolt you to your bones in smaller venues, even if their set was a little conservative.


Cat Power. The air was thick with dread as Chan's legion of fans looked on helplessly. Their idol, her eyes darting nervously from side to side as she rushed through songs mostly from her new album The Greatest, looked for all the world like she's one missed note away from a full-on nervous breakdown. But after a shaky start in that tension-packed tent, a jittery Ms. Marshall, squeezed into a satin cocktail dress, exorcised her demons by belting out torch songs with an unmatched intensity. Loosening up as the set drew to a close, Cat Power finished with a rousing cover of "House of the Rising Sun" to her fans' undying gratitude. Me, I really wanted to see a neurotic episode. But a nice set will do.

Lyrics Born. Pretty awesome to see an Asian dude with flow own the tent, even though the sight was so dissonant I kept doing double takes.

Deerhoof. After seeing Deerhoof, Fiery Furnaces and Architecture in Helsinki, I'm starting to get wary of this kind wacko electicism in a live setting. With their emphasis on radical melodic shifts, skittish rhythms with seemingly unmotivated breaks, fractured song structures, and quirky arrangements incorporating such wacky instruments as triangles, vibes, and even toy trumpets, these cheerfully unpredictable acts feed off of their iPod shuffle approach, playing sets that'll jump from spare, sugary ballads that borrow from childhood ditties to epic jams that evoke "Sister Ray." Maybe it's my fault, but Deerhoof's abrupt gearshifts, so joyous on record, gave me a bit of a whiplash live even if Satomi's shriek is something to behold.


Wolfmother. Most of the crowd thought these guys played a rockin' set, but if I really wanted to listen to 70s arena rock revival, why not just slip in my Led Zepplin II and listen to the real thing?

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Against my better judgment perhaps, I loved (most of) this mega-hyped band's debut album. How disappointing to discover that they are slack and uninspired live, unable to summon up the drunken enthusiasm that fueled their infectious carnival tracks. With the rhythm section falling behind as Alec Ounsworth's screechy wails thinned out at the top registers, Clap Your Hands' set began to take on the experience of drinking flat soda -- it's sugar water with none of the fizz.

Depeche Mode. Old farts, at least thirtysomething old farts like me, remember that indelible day after school when we played the "deepest song, like, ever" on our ghettoblaster for the first time for our 7th grade sweetheart. We introduce the song in hushed tones, explaining how it's "a cappella" (a strange foreign phrase we secretly hope would finally elicit more than a peck on the cheek). Then it comes on: "I want somebody to share/share the rest of my life./Share my innermost thoughts/know my most intimate details", a brittle male voice sings plaintively. Oh, to be enthralled in the memories of that divine moment, when your soul touched the soul of another via Martin Gore's profound koans to cosmic connection ("she will listen to me/when I want to speak/about the world we live in/and life in general") to recall why you've managed to repress every single memory from that traumatic year (except maybe the NBA finals that year, when the Lakers finally defeated the Celtics for the first time).

What's truly frightening is that I can still remember every line of that wretched ballad.

As an old fart whose fandom ended with Some Great Reward, DM's rote, laborious greatest hits melange was a particular disappointment. Judging from their song choices, it appears Gahan, Gore and co. misassessed their catalog and overvalued Violator. It's their early gothic industrial tracks like "Blasphemous Rumours" and "Master and Servant", with their risque s&m flavor, that are the most distinctive, but the only sop to old-timers was "Shake the Disease". Poor showing, but not unexpectedly so, I suppose.

The Bela Tarr award for audience flagellation goes to....Animal Collective. Last time I saw a crowd flood out of a show this quickly was at a Werckmeister Harmonies screening at Toronto Int'l Film Festival. When I arrived, they were in the middle of building some kind of sound collage, basically a cacophony featuring two droning chords and startling snippets of animalistic vocals. Fifteen minutes later, when I left the performance, they were still in the middle of building their sound collage, with vocalists simulating what sounded like pigeon mating calls.

Only Sampled Two or Three Songs:

Ladytron, She Wants Revenge, The Walkmen. I was too far back to properly appreciate Ladytron's performance; as a fan of their albums, all I can say is they didn't give me a compelling reason to stay for the full set. She Wants Revenge played three songs that sounded exactly the same. The Walkmen appeared uninspired from my (very far) vantage point.

Wish I had seen:

TV on the Radio, The Zutons, The Like. Zutons and TVOTR were two of the most favorably reviewed acts on the Coachella message board. Especially TV, which I had penciled in but at the last minute abandoned for pizza and bratwurst (and the soothing sounds of Sigur Ros in the background) instead.

Day 2


Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I've heard the Karen O's spunky stage show is in fact not as spontaneous as it looks. No matter. Sure, Karen O does what you expect: strut, scream at the top of her lungs with her legs splayed on the floor, fellate a mic. What I didn't prepare for is the inhuman screech that O's vocal chords unleash, a eardrum rattling primal scream that can't be described by the English language. O's manic energy on stage -- her obvious star-wattage -- is one thing, but YYY's stage show wouldn't pack half the punch without the aggressive proto-punk guitars and the psuedo-jazz beats. Despite what you may have heard, this is very much of a band. A band that fucking rocks. Trust me, Karen O and the Watson Twins wouldn't generate a fraction of YYY's electricity.


Sleater-Kinney. I've never seen the revered indie goddesses live, and appropriately on the Coachella stage they've played a healthy selection from their arena rock-inspired The Woods, ending with the rocker "Let's Call It Love", with that 10 minute plus guitar solo. No complaints.

Wolf Parade. The restless crowd began shuffling out as the band seemed incapable of fixing a sound equipment snafu. Twenty minutes had elapsed since Wolf Parade's scheduled start, and still the only sight on view were of a bunch of baffled sound engineers and band members tinkering with amps. Knowing those Benitos at Coachella will skip bands in order to keep to the schedule, we finally decided to bail as the situation appeared hopeless. But thankfully, right before we were able to step out, they got their shit together and played an electrifying if somewhat compromised set. To my untrained ears, the keyboard was off, but that didn't stop these kids from Montreal from just killing it. I had no idea they had a Lennon/McCartney thing going with alternating vocalists, but overall I prefer the more punkish-looking dude's cuts.


Gnarls Barkley. A kickass compilation album can be put together containing only songs with the title "Crazy." I caught Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse's monster hit along with a few other tracks from way outside the tent, as their 30 minute set was tipped by the buzzmeisters as the act to see in that time slot. Too far back to participate in the desert bacchanal, all I can see from my (disad)vantage point were Danger Mouse bobbing around in some kind of Halloween outfit and Cee-Lo working the tent into a frenzy. Must catch in a small venue some time.

Madonna. The most famous woman in the world, playing in a tent with maximum capacity of maybe 3,000? It doesn't take a logistics expert to know this spells trouble, but it was surprisingly easy to slither your way inside the tent right before the show began, if you're so inclined. Amid the throng of teenage girls in exposed thongs inconsiderately straddling their boyfriends' shoulders, I waited for the Queen of Pop to grace us with her regal presence. But after twenty minutes, the hisses and catcalls started. Did the Big M not understand this was Coachella, not some Orange County hockey arena? Did she think we enlightened Coachella attendees will deign to wait around for twenty minutes? Who the hell does she think she is? Bright Eyes? Ben Gibbard?

My view completely obstructed by a Great Wall of teen girls (their thongs conspicuously exposed -- have I mentioned this already?), I couldn't really judge Madonna's performance when she finally appeared. A glimpse of Madonna attempting to play the guitar to a rocked-up "Ray of Light". Some backup dancers doing a choreographed routine more suited to a Grammy show than the Sahara Tent. Nada from Madonna's 80s heyday, which made her much-hyped appearance much less satisfying than her arena show, where at least you get the trumphant "Like a Prayer". After about three and half tracks, I tired of the sweaty bodies trying to squeeze their way onto the stage. So I bailed to catch the last fifteen minutes of...

Mogwai. The "loudest band in the world" lived up to their moniker, as they built a wall of sound so dense that Lou Dobbsian nativists should consider hiring them to guard the U.S-Mexico border.

Massive Attack. The electro-lounge godfather is my favorite band in the lineup, but can't say the live show really enhanced my appreciation. Nothing wrong with their performance per se (I would've liked a few more cuts from Protection and Blue Lines, but no biggie), so I'd chalk up the lukewarm vibe to the downtempo rhythms of trip hop itself, otherwise as versatile a genre as you'll find. Scurrying for make-out music as you plan your Myspace date? Try Morcheeba's Big Calm. Need something to set the mood for cocktail hour at your dinner party? Throw on Maxinquaye. Need a soundtrack to sulk to after a heartbreak, after you wear out your favorite Billie Holiday album? May I suggest Portishead's Dummy?

How many of us have gyrated to "Unfinished Sympathy" in the wee of hours of a club night, or play "Karma Koma" in our head as we stride down a dark city street? Okay, maybe just me. And it's cool that Massive Attack played both those cuts. But like Thievery Corporation at Coachella three years ago, the relaxed grooves just don't grab you in that outdoor desert setting. Massive Attack's playing at the Hollywood Bowl this summer, but you know, I'll wait for a show at the Avalon instead.

Not impressed by:

Matisyahu. As I understand it, this dude is an orthodox Jew who sings reggae. Let's see how far his shtick takes him. For me, about three songs.

Wish I had seen:

Magic Numbers (so they've got an easy-listening sound and supposedly bombed on the Coachella stage, but sue me, I loved their album); Go Team! (infectious bubble-gum pop wowed those who saw it -- I would've definitely caught them had I been on my own); Digable Planets (couldn't quite ditch YYY in time); Amadou & Mariam (played too early; word is they were awesome); Art Brut (They kinda have the Franz Ferdinand in early 2004 vibe; played after we took off).