As the landscape of music purchasing changes increasingly from record shops to iTunes and other online download sources, an interesting fact has been revealed: most of us like all kinds of music. We have become shuffle-heads. We want to hear our alt-country butted up against our dirty south rap, and if we don’t, we get bored—the genre-faithful approach of traditional radio is what is rapidly killing it. Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, in Indio, California, has become the most successful of the American music festivals by anticipating this change. Launched in 1999 (two years before the launch of iPod), Coachella has become a fairly accurate barometer of what is, was, or will be loved by hipsters across America.
Between the two of us, we have seen 5 of the last 7 Coachellas, 3 of them together. Over the years we have witnessed countless performances by some of the luminaries of modern music on a large dusty polo field, and one thing has become very clear: the future of music lies in the destruction of genre altogether. No festival in our experience has ever proven this more clearly than this year’s Coachella.
The most outstanding performances of the festival came from those who were actively attempting to cross boundaries. As we watched Bay Area rapper Murs with 9th Wonder, we saw a teenager in a Gogol Bordello shirt bouncing up and down, and we realized that this is the testing ground for the future of popular music. The act that perhaps most clearly demonstrated this genre-crossing is one that is already a sensation in the UK, and is about to drop in the US: Gnarls Barkley. In the studio, Gnarls is the creation of red-hot beat maker Danger Mouse and ex-Goodie Mob soul madman Cee-Lo Green. Live, the pair was joined by a full band including strings, horns, and backup singers.
We had heard a couple of Gnarls’ singles on Myspace prior to the show, and they were brought to full Technicolor life onstage. In addition to being a band of crack musicians, the group dressed as characters from the Wizard of Oz, with Cee-Lo as “Mee-Lo the Not-So-Cowardly-Lion.” Combining electronics and live instrumentation to execute songs that in themselves blend rock, soul, funk, techno, and hip hop was quite an impressive feat. We can’t remember that last time we saw a stage show so captivating (though Basement Jaxx with a full band, Dizzee Rascal, and dancers in gorilla costumes two years earlier at Coachella does come to mind.) Musicians like Gnarls Barkley and UK soul/electronic sensation Jamie Lidell, who performed earlier in the same venue, understand that music is about communication. If a musician can communicate effectively with their audience, it doesn’t really matter how they manage to do it.
Lidell’s show was much more minimal than Gnarls’, featuring only him, a rack of electronics, and his silly dancer/hype man. Lidell built his music in front of us. He would start beatboxing, sample a four bar section of his rhythm, and loop it, immediately jumping to a keyboard to set up melodies to go with it. As soon as he had backing tracks created/sequenced, he would begin singing, and his show changed from electronic wizardry to classic soul-man, complete with James Brown cape action from his hype man. Here was a decidedly electronic musician whose most effective stage trick was looking the audience in the eyes and singing very well.
In addition to newly-hip acts, Coachella is known for returning alternative pleasures of the last 10 to 20 years to the stage. Sometimes this is a great success, such as with the Pixies’ recent reunion and excellent Coachella set two years ago, and this year’s Digable Planets return with full live band. Sometimes this turns into the more predictable tired sounding oldies set by a band whose chops are not what they should be. Sadly, this seemed to be the case with this year’s set by Massive Attack. We have been Massive Attack fans for many years, but their show at Coachella was sleep-inducing. They stood absolutely still, and did not play with much energy. The much-hyped addition of Madonna to this year’s festival was justified as the addition of a world-class dance act to the bill, but proved to be little more than spectacle for the pop music fans in the crowd.
Not that spectacle is a bad thing. Daft Punk played what became the most camera-phone videoed set of the weekend in that same dance tent by assaulting the audience with some of the most astounding visuals we had ever encountered, coupled with dynamic remixing of their beloved catalogue. The pair arrived inside of a giant pyramid that towered over the stage. The pyramid was used as a projection surface from inside and out, allowing light to glow from within and strange psychedelic visuals to appear on the outside. A problem that electronic acts traditionally face in translating their music to American crowds is the lack of stage show. Daft Punk captivated even those too shy to dance to their beats.
The way that we listen to music has changed, and continues to change. This both reflects and effects the way that music is being made, and the way it is being performed live. The record industry is faltering because they have not quite figured out the new mold, but Coachella seems to have it down. Hip-hop next to folk, electronic next to metal, and eventually, it’s all just rock and roll.
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