Yes, the Coachella polo grounds were not rainy. And this astounded the former Pulp frontman. He spent the better part of thirty minutes trying to wrap his head around that.
A few days later, driving away from the desert site of the ultimate preview for the rock royalty here in America, I suffered a moment of Cockeresque confusion—if Coachella was a decidedly American setting, bigger than life, surrounded by gated communities and then freeway, with an audience full of American film stars including Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, Ron Jeremy and Jason Lee (Earl J. Hickey from My Name is Earl), it was a little surprising to realize that most of the best received artists were from across the pond. The future of critically acclaimed commercial rock in America looks to be British.
I should explain what Coachella is and why it is so important, but I’m having trouble coming to grips with it. Originally, Coachella was just a bad idea come to fruition, a concert held in a desert oasis in the summer offering 25,000 fans a chance to get sunstroke while watching Rage Against the Machine—which may still be the recommended manner in which to take in a Rage concert. Slowly, the festival has grown in influence, as bands like Iggy and the Stooges and the Pixies chose it as the site for their reunion concerts. Then, last year, Gnarls Barkley used the venue to step into the nationwide spotlight and it seemed pretty clear that this was the kingmaker among festivals: CMJ could get a band a write up in Pitchfork and blogs, but Coachella gets radio, TV and newspaper coverage.
And before I describe the festival, it’s worth describing the coverage. In years past, there was mention of reunions and revelry. This year, one act garnered nationwide attention: Björk. She offered an energetic, enigmatic live introduction of Volta to thousands of fans and she got bewildered but mostly positive praise… for her wardrobe. Beyond Björk, bands weren’t mentioned nearly as much as the celebrities in the crowd.
Listening to a Clear Channel station on my way out of LA after the festival, I got the summary that mass media was using to summarize the festival in the curious fragment from a pleased DJ: “Yes, and this year at Coachella, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore were dancing in the grass. That’s a memory.”
My festival experience began with two hours of waiting to park and get in—due to traffic mishaps in LA before that, this meant missing Of Montreal, the indie sensation from Athens Georgia, and Nickel Creek, a young bluegrass outfit that has redefined the genre. When I got in, the Arctic Monkeys were on the main stage, which one might think would be the worst of possible omens. The Arctic Monkeys may be the least original and most over-hyped of the Brit pop scene. It is one thing to dislike teenagers for by-the-numbers rock with lyrics that confuse sneer for wit, syllables for intellectualism, but it is another to see these kids get up before thousands and play these songs with a sense of humour, and tighter than any band I’ve seen. Had I never seen them on a magazine cover, or in the New York Times, had I never listened closely to the lyrics, I would have been a fan for life.
Rufus Wainwright presented a bewildering performance. From the start, with a peculiar wardrobe malfunction involving a to-die-for butterfly broach, he offered causal quips between his smooth, honest and awkward songs. Here’s an explanation of how bewildering the show was: the self-described “Gay Sinatra” joked, nightclub style, “It’s great to be here in the desert where all the rejects have to go… you know, the gays the homosexuals…” to hoots and hollers, and then jumped into Going to a Town (That has Been Burnt Down), with the refrain “I’m so tired of America”, a performance that would bring a theatre crowd to their feet and, having captured our attention and intellect, he declared he was hot. Taking off his clothes he pulled off a robe to reveal a red, white and blue striped shirt and shorts combo.
Among other remarkable moments Friday: the Mexican act Felix the Kat getting a singalong going from a small but vocal following; Jarvis Cocker’s aforementioned rambling show that delayed the whole evening a little—he not only felt like talkin’, but he was also about 45 minutes late; and Interpol getting on stage and getting the best response of the festival.
That should come as a shock Interpol being a festival favourite. Yes, all dressed in black, their singer kind of looked like Mark Hamill in Return of the Jedi, which is neat, and their songs sounded like they did on the radio only a little more full. It was an odd moment, for all the eclectic performances of the night, Interpol’s straight-faced, straight-laced show, with no antics save the bass player growing a moustache, was the show of the night.
Later, Sonic Youth would play to an older crowd and Björk would play the main stage, drawing adoration but also more than a little frustration. Björk’s visual performance was stunning, but as she ain’t exactly tall. The video monitors that helped the crowd of upwards of 25,000 get a guess as to what was going on were focused on the motions of her DJs hands, not too much of the crowd saw more than the singer’s bobbing head. Her material from her forthcoming album, Volta, was mostly in minor keys and a little more laid back than her stage antics suggested, or than the crowd probably wanted.
On day two of the festival, heat became an issue. Late in the afternoon I was rammed into a packed tent watching Hot Chip blare through The Warning, with 4,000 20-something shirtless kids bouncing next to me, when the room spun in a bad way and I had to crawl out. The temperature outside of the non-air conditioned tent at 5 pm: 103 degrees (about 40 degrees Celsius).
It had been difficult earlier in the day. When I saw the Icelandic band the Fields play the same tent at noon, their conventional takes on the pop song and their laid back manner had been virtues, perfect for lazy viewing in the heat. I had abandoned The Cribs, who played so hard you sweated just looking at them, and headed out to the open air to see New Jersey’s once great hope Fountains of Wayne. And I had been grateful, somehow, to Regina Spektor for apologizing to the crowd for the ridiculous heat. Spektor’s presence on recordings can be a little sentimental—she can be breathy and overly cute. But live, from a somewhat daring opening a cappella number through her next six numbers from Begin to Hope, her skill, her perfect pitch and rhythm, made for a charming performance, even when her sometimes slightly overly precious and cute lyrics grated.
At 6:15, Saturday’s schedule offered performances from the following bands: Kings of Leon, the Decemberists, !!!, and Andrew Bird. I got involved in a number of lengthy discussions about which show a journalist should cover—all four bands essentially being the future of critically-acclaimed rock. The conclusion was absolute. No doubt about it, I had to go cover the Decemberists show. Why? Because the Decemberists had an amazing gimmick: they were hosting a wedding during their concert. Wow. A wedding. At a rock festival. Now that was a story, I was told.
I like the Decemberists. Hell, they were a key reason I came to the festival, even if their recent album didn’t exactly wow me. But at exactly 6:15 Saturday, I completely lost it over their constant neat little press stories. Bios are cool. And maybe I can take the occasional documentary, theirs gets pretty regular play on the Sundance network, but when you take that and combine it with the press off of their nifty little green screen fan-submitted video stint and then their guitar off with Stephen Colbert, and then a wedding on stage, you get this annoying geeky amalgam.
So I bagged the Decemberists concert and the easy story, though I assume the wedding went through. About halfway through their concert a bunch of journalists walked by my post at Kings of Leon writing in their notebooks and smiling that Oh-aren’t-theyclever- and-cute smile.
It was the best decision I could have made. Kings of Leon got up looking like the coolest kids from high school, not mine by the way but that high school in Dazed and Confused, and completely revived a heat-stroked audience. I’m not going to say that people danced quite the way they did at the Hot Chip show, this was a bit more reserved, but people moved and moved well. It was bliss. The key reason, beyond the sheer beauty of the band, was their powerhouse rhythm section which seems to have locked in through their extensive touring schedule. But there was also a quality to their show that the other highlight, the Black Keys, would have: they were polite, but they got to their business. They didn’t talk about how neat it was to be in the desert or name their albums—there was no damn jibba jabba. They made good music, they obviously felt the music and enjoyed the stage, and then they thanked everyone and left.
Arcade Fire later played the same stage, with a doomed opening from Neon Bible in which their use of so many voices and instruments all played vigorously but without, honestly, notes – just a couple monotonous chords – and which made anyone not in the Arcade Fire cult question their prestige. As the set went on, though, they moved to their standards and stopped being so damned schticky and they nailed a couple tunes.
The Red Hot Chili Peppers followed Arcade Fire, and would dedicate a song to the Canadians during their set. I didn’t see many people looking forward to the Chili Peppers; they haven’t gotten much airplay on the local radio, especially compared to Sunday’s headliner, Rage Against the Machine. When they took the stage with a blazing instrumental freak out, featuring Jon Frusciante going ballistic on guitar, I think quite a few thousand casual observers realized that maybe the Red Hot Chili Peppers could put out something great. But as soon as they broke into their set and as soon as Kiedis started singing, honestly, the energy got sapped. There’s only so much you can do when you’re freaking out to the lyrics “Turn Off Your Television.”
“I’m here for Rage and nothing else. I don’t give a fuck about anything else,” an earnest young man with a shaved head told me as he wandered through the alternative energy demonstrations at The Energy Factory in the centre of the festival grounds.
Yes, on day three of the festival, Rage Against the Machine were having their reunion show and suddenly the number of people with shaved heads, goatees, and large, saggy pecs increased about 1000%. It was obvious that Rage had gotten quite a few kids through their workouts—workouts that stopped with the band’s break-up seven years ago.
I did my best to enjoy the day before what I guessed would be a testosterone meltdown at the end of the day. A bluegrass hybrid called The Avett Brothers put together an early surprise: three young guys who have been touring constantly since 1999. They have evolved a sound that blends Bright Eyes and Neutral Milk Hotel, that wonder combination that every alt country indie band is dying for, but that I’ve never heard captured quite so well.
Hours later, Rodrigo Y Gabriela, a couple from Mexico City who launched their career, curiously enough in Dublin, Ireland, opened for Damien Rice and presented the best performance of the festival. Rodrigo y Gabriela have developed a manic following based on their unique take on the uses of nylon string acoustic guitars—namely, they’ve developed a style that blends heavy metal percussion, classical technique and thrash metal melodies. This all sounds novel enough, but when you combine it with enthusiastic devils horns, and the honest-to-God ability to work a crowd, you get the live performance that brought down Coachella with a satisfying chant of Me-xi-co.
As the day wound down, The Roots kept the crowd mellow with a decent set which provided no surprises. Willie Nelson, celebrating his 74th birthday, got a dazed response. For all the pop and rock of the festival, Nelson was the only performer offering lyrics that could stand up well on their own. What is more, as most of the audience had never heard his lyrics—I met an enthusiastic young women who was there only because she knew about Nelson’s bio-diesel buses—the intelligence and wit of the Nelson show caught the crowd by surprise.
Air, Damien Rice and Manu Chao all performed decently, but none of them did anything to indicate they had much new on the horizon. Then I realized that I was close to the front of the Rage Against the Machine concert about 10 minutes before start time.
After three days of mellow, polite buzz, it looked like things were going to go sour. Scrambling to get to the back of the crowd, I narrowly missed a large bouncer-type who was spreading out his arms to stretch his pecs and who then clapped his hands together and groaned out “Let’s do this.”
When Rage came on, I was a quarter mile away, looking over a sea of people who seemed to like two things: beef and Rage Against the Machine.
The crowd bristled as Zack De La Rocha walked up to the mic and offered the understated intro: “Hello. We’re Rage Against the Machine from Los Angeles, California.” And, almost nonchalantly, they jumped into Testify, followed by Bulls on Parade and People of the Sun and a set list that reminded you how great the band had been seven years ago.
As for the violence I was expecting, nothing happened. The mass of muscle all shifted when De La Rocha took the mic. Arms went down to front pockets then raised, almost universally holding cell phones. From my viewpoint, I could see thousands of tiny blue cell phone screens; Rage Against the Machine performing a flawless set in front of what looked like an enormous human switchboard.