Guardian intern Jonathan Knapp checked out Coachella last week and lived to tell the tale:
Jose Luis Pardo of Los Amigos Invisibles
holds forth Sunday at Coachella.
Photo: Mirissa Neff.
As someone who has lost his once-vigorous passion for indie rock and large music festivals, I approached my trip to Coachella with caution and confusion. Why the hell was I driving 500 miles to spend two days in the brutally hot desert sun to see a bunch of bands that I had, at best, an intermittent interest in? All right, my girlfriend really wanted me to, and our companion — a good friend and a guitarist from local post-hardcore outfit And a Few to Break — was the perfect guide: He’d been before and has been largely responsible for turning me on to the little new music that excites me.
It’s not as if I now hate indie rock — I’ve just become preoccupied with the music of the past. I’d much rather, for instance, discover nearly forgotten gems like O.V. Wright’s “You’re Gonna Make Me Cry” and Wanda Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama” than be the first to herald the Bloc Party or Clap Your Hands. There were definitely some newer bands at Coachella that had already easily won me over — Animal Collective, TV on the Radio — and some holdovers from my indie rock youth: Sleater-Kinney, Cat Power. Additionally, Madonna was playing; though I wouldn’t have admitted it at the height of my Drag City- and Merge-fuelled ecstasy, this was unquestionably exciting.
To a relatively recent East Coast transplant, Coachella’s setting is nothing short of alien. Set aside the heat (which is consuming and oppressive) and what remains is a beautiful, if stark and bleak, atmosphere: palm trees, miles of flat, bush-littered sand, and — when the Los Angeles smog recedes — snow-capped mountains. This year’s fest brought a mostly predictable mix of inappropriately black-clad SF/LA hipsters, shirtless/bikini-topped OC trust-funders/frat types, Arizona college hippies, and — given that this was Tool’s first show in five years — metalheadz. Though people-watching is certainly fruitful and entertaining, Coachella does not provide as much craziness as one might expect — but it certainly does exist.
The festival, held over Saturday and Sunday, April 29 and 30, on the incongruously green and groomed Empire Polo Fields, is a whirlwind of simultaneous activity and overstimulation. If you’re really only there to see one act (like Depeche Mode), it’s no problem. But for those whose interests are a bit more catholic, the prospect of navigating five separate stages that feature virtually nonstop, and eclectic, music from noon till midnight is daunting.
Do you choose Kanye West or My Morning Jacket? Wolf Parade or Jamie Lidell? In my case, both these choices proved easy, if not fully satisfying. For the former: With tickets on Kanye’s late-2005 tour being at least $45, the relatively reasonable one-day Coachella pass of $85 (about $190 for both days, including service charges) makes it
the best opportunity to see him.
West’s set was entertaining, if not transcendent. Mindful of the temperature (he played a still-blistering 6 p.m. slot), West substituted the angel-winged getup he’s favored recently for a white Miles Davis T-shirt and jeans. Backed by live drums, turntables, backup singers, and a string section, he offered a respectable but awkward approximation of his increasingly ornate recordings (no Jon Brion in sight). The highlight: West inexplicably announced his DJ would play a few of his biggest influences, moving from Al Green and Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson to a-ha’s “Take on Me,” dancing around the stage with a goofiness that, though obviously calculated, seemed charmingly unselfconscious.
Following West on the main stage, Sigur Ros created one of the festival’s moments of impossible beauty, bringing their ethereal noise to day one’s lofty sunset slot (7:00-7:50 p.m.). Admittedly, I’ve been a bit hesitant to embrace the beloved Icelandic group. Though I’ve enjoyed much of their work, I’ve been turned off by what I’ve interpreted as delusions of grandeur: a made-up language (there’s already one Magma), bullshit declarations of “creating a new type of music,” and the hushed reverence with which they’re frequently discussed. However, I can’t think of a better band to accompany a desert dusk, or a better setting for the band — apart from a glacier, perhaps. Backed by a mini-string section, they played a set that, at that time and in that place, was astonishing. My gratitude goes to the man and woman who danced behind the netting just immediately off stage right: Their undulating silhouettes would have brought me to tears, had dehydration and hours of standing not already beaten them to it.
My other day one highlight was Animal Collective, a band whose aesthetic of psych-pop, tribalism, and general weirdness was perfectly suited to the surreal setting. Though I’ve adored many of their recordings (they’re one of the few current bands that I’m genuinely excited to watch evolve), I’d heard that their propensity for wandering and wanking can be their downfall live. I found that they kept this mostly in check, grounding their less accessible and more abrasive experimentations with hypnotic rhythms and a convincing feeling that this was, in fact, going somewhere. Much of the crowd didn’t seem to know what to make of it. Too bad: To my ears, few artists approach their inventiveness, live or recorded.
That day I also caught some of Deerhoof (appropriately erratic, with some fantastic moments), Cat Power (as expected, the Memphis Rhythm Band has given her a new sense of confidence and composure, and they sound fucking great), Wolfmother (energetic, but dull), White Rose Movement (I’ll stick to my Pulp records, thank you), the New Amsterdams (nothing new about them), and the Walkmen (solid).
After returning to the grounds Sunday (we fortunately camped at the much-less-populated Salton Sea, about 20 minutes away), we immediately went to catch Mates of State (adorable and infectious), who closed with a decent version of Nico’s “Time of the Season,” and Ted Leo, who was reliably engaging. To try to get close for Wolf Parade, we headed to the medium-sized tent (there were three) and watched Metric. I’d been intrigued by their Broken Social Scene connections, but their set of dancey agit-pop left me cold and bored (my companions disagreed).
I separated from my friends to stand in the back for Wolf Parade, so I could head to the main stage for Sleater-Kinney. After starting late, Wolf Parade apologized for technical issues (“Everything’s fucked”) and began a set that, from my perch hundreds of feet away, sounded slight and thin. Disappointed, I left after three songs. I’ve been told that the experience up-front, however, was quite different, and among the best of the festival.
I fell in love with the women of Sleater-Kinney about a decade ago when I was 16. I’ve tried to see them a number of times over the years, but something always fell through: sold-out, unbreakable engagements, etc. I usually don’t think about them, except when they release a new album and, maybe once or twice a year, when I put on Call the Doctor or Dig Me Out — briefly reminding myself why they once meant so much to me.
Clearly, this has been a huge mistake: Focusing mostly on songs from the past couple albums, the trio played a fierce, powerful set that all the years of hearing about their live show hadn’t prepared me for. At a festival that celebrated scenes that I’ve mostly abandoned, this became my essential moment. Mses. Corin Tucker, Carrie Brownstein, and Janet Weiss reminded me not only why I loved them, but why I loved going to shows in the first place — for the sheer raw, sweaty energy. These women deserve to fill stadiums.
After watching a bit of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who impressed me more than I expected, I headed to the dance tent, joining an apparent majority of festivalgoers in an attempt to see Madonna. Unable to get anywhere near the stage, we settled for a spot outside it, where our view was of a large screen and, when we were lucky enough to be able to peek through the massive throng at a distant stage.
Several minutes before the set (which unsurprisingly started late), a line of people carrying parasols and decked out in lingerie bondage gear made their way through the crowd on stilts. Managing the seemingly impossible feat of reaching the front of the stage, they were easily the festival’s smartest and most inventive attendees.
When Madonna finally took the stage, all hell broke loose — an appropriate response, perhaps, but not one that the performance itself warranted. Predictable and short, Madonna’s set started with the superb “Hung Up,” then moved on to “Ray of Light” and four more songs, most of them newer material. Most surprising was her guitar playing (or at least the appearance of it) and the rock-like arrangements of all the tunes. She occasionally provoked the audience (“Don’t throw water on my stage, motherfuckers,” “Do you want me to take my pants off?”), but nothing here was shocking. That said, the woman looks fantastic and commands a stage in a way that few could. After six songs, she left abruptly. It was anticlimactic, yet still somehow thrilling. It was, after all, fucking Madonna.
Immediately after, we ran into Andy Dick, who stood talking to a pair of starstruck 13-year-old girls. Far more behaved than the blogs have reported he later would be, Dick seemed as amused with the girls as they were with him. Though he claimed to have to go meet his “girlfriend,” he talked to them for several minutes: “Oh, I love Madonna too. Hey — how are you even here? Aren’t people, like, drinking? Where are your parents?”
After catching a fantastic, fun set from the Go! Team (who had Mike Watt guesting on bass), we attempted to see Tool. Unable to get anywhere close to the stage (this seemed by far to be the most crowded show, though Madonna was close), we sat down, expecting to watch the band on the giant screens on either side of the stage. While the band played, however, their videos (you know: internal organs and jittery, alien-looking people doing painful things) were projected on the screens. Bored and wary of the inevitable hours of traffic that we’d hit if we stayed for the set, we bid Coachella adieu.
Acts I wished I had caught, but couldn’t for various reasons: Lady Sovereign, Jamie Lidell, Gnarls Barkley, Seu Jorge, My Morning Jacket, Phoenix, Mogwai, Depeche Mode, Coldcut, and TV on the Radio. Biggest regret (by far): missing Daft Punk. Word of their closing Saturday night set hovered all day Sunday, discussed in whispered, but rhapsodic tones.
I left the festival exhausted, anxious to return to San Francisco, and — most importantly — reminded why I devoted so many years to indie rock. Will I stop seeking out New Orleans R&B, rockabilly, and Southern soul? No, but that doesn’t mean I have to ignore this wave of postpunk, does it? That said, I’ll take Gang of Four, Wire, and Pere Ubu over Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand any day.
But, right now, I just want to listen to Sleater-Kinney.