Fountains Of Wayne was blasting through the main stage's speakers as I entered the gates on Saturday. It was a "Radiation Vibe" they were grooving on, which felt quite appropriate: Microwave, convection oven, pick a heating device–It was well over 100 degrees and felt like it. Just imagine this place in August.
No "Stacy's Mom" on the setlist today. Fountains Of Wayne are emphasing the "power" part of their power-pop today. Methinks the band wants to be taken a little more seriously.
Unsurprisingly, the Mojave Tent was mobbed for The Fratellis' pub-punk sing-a-longs. What is surprising is how tight they were. These Scots can actually play their instruments. The crowd–its interest stoked by endless iPod advertisements featuring "Flathead" and its kaleidoscopic "ba-da-ba" chorus–went nuts when the big single hit. For some of the folks packed into the tent, it may have been the highlight of the day.
Regina Spektor did her thing on the main stage next, and it was good but something about her hip, chill, piano-centric, New York vibe felt strange in the middle of a sunny day in California's Low Desert.
Missed both Hot Chip and Roky Erikson (apologies in advance, dear readers–I had to use the press tent's internet station, which is miles from the tents where they were appearing), but was pleased to hear Travis on the main stage nearby. I'd seen Fran Healy and company debut new material at KCRW's Sounds Eclectic show a couple of weeks back–an acoustic performance with a stripped-down drum kit, that was a little flaccid, frankly. But playing fully electric at Coachella, Travis sounded whole again. With electric guitars ringing out in full force, older tunes like "Writing To Reach You" from 1999's The Man Who sounded full and gorgeous.
This was frustration hour of course: Along with Travis, indie-poppers The New Pornographers, electronic act MSTRKRT, suddenly ubiquitous Swedish indie act Peter Bjorn And John, and The Nightwatchman all played simultaneous sets on stages separated by long walks under a triple-digit sky. Herein lies the madness of Coachella, as experienced by someone who wants to enjoy the full board of fare.
Heard The New Pornographers' perform "Mass Romantic," at the Outdoor Theatre, but moved onto The Nightwatchman–a.k.a. Tom Morello–at Gobi, the nearest of the three tents.
For those unfamiliar with The Nightwatchman, it's Tom Morello's folk project, full of (big surprise here) acoustic-oriented, pro-labor work songs. I was prepared to be a little underwhelmed with this campfire-type material, but–arriving just in time for the big closer–was pleased to catch one of Coachella's "big moments."
After saying, "I hope you're all out there plotting revolution," Morello introduced his guests for the big finale–Boots Riley of The Coup and Perry Farrell of, well, Perry Farrell. There was a lot of glad-handing with Farrell exclaiming, "It's an honor to be on the stage with two fellow revolutionaries," but no one seemed to mind. After an all-hands tirade against President Bush, the trio launched into Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land," singing–as Morello promised they would–"all the verses they wouldn't teach you in the third grade."
Was it a celebrity-riddled, photo opportunity probably simultaneously entered into triplicate text by all the stars' publicists? Yes. Was it also a heartfelt performance that had everyone there singing along during the chorus and quite a few people seemingly moved? Absolutely. As I side note, I do have to wonder how many of those present walked to the tent across from Gobi–the one marked "Iraq Veterans Against The War"–to lend their support and sympathy after the song ended.
Walking to Beter Bjorn And John's set at the nearby Mojave tent, you could feel the atmosphere changing. Due to the arrangement of the tent, the main entrance faced the now almost-setting but still incredibly powerful sun. Consequently, there was no shade for anyone inside; the rays reached almost to the stage. Trapped by the nonporous ceiling, the air inside became almost liquid and the tent was transformed into a hothouse–an ill mix of desert heat, 100 percent humidity (based entirely on the sweat of those present), and plenty of stink. The punchline was watching a good half of those gathered flee the stage the moment PB&J; (plus Shout Out Louds' Bebban Stenborg) finished their whistle-manifesto "Young Folks."
Further along at the Sahara Tent, MSTRKRFT was making an amazing-sounding digital racket, but I opted for a bottle of water and a swath of shaded grass nearby.
Skipping the band-geek-chic of The Decemberists at the Outdoor Theatre, (pause for a wave of righteous indignation) I found more grass in front of the main stage as the concurrently scheduled Kings Of Leon began playing (pause for explosive, unbridled horror).
The Tennessee family affair–which came off like the Lyrnyrd Skynyrd of indie-rock–was great: sweaty, greasy, meaty, stinky rock 'n' roll that sounded about how I felt at the time. "The Bucket," "Molly's Chambers," "On Call"–all the radio-friendly releases I'd never paid that much attention to–sounded like the beginnings of a greatest hits collection actually worth releasing.
I'm not kidding.
After Kings Of Leon, I contemplated scurrying over to the tents. I kept contemplating as I lay on my back watching the skies slowly darken, in glorious if relative silence. I did not move.
This was a good decision.
The Arcade Fire hit the main stage next with a performance that confirmed the accolades. The Montreal quintet played with all the intensity of an old-time revival–a secular one to be sure (The new Neon Bible isn't exactly a plug for the religious right)–but a revival nonetheless, with frontman Win Butler singing as if he had a message he desperately needed you to hear. Just one of a string of throat-tighteningly good songs, the chiming, vibrating "Neighborhood #3 (Power Out)" had all the warbly warmth of a child waking up on Christmas morning. Another standout from 2004's gracefully aging Funeral, "Rebellion (Lies)" sounded like what it was/is–a song good enough to alter the landscape of the music industry. Newer stuff–"Intervention" in particular with its glorious pipe organ intro–maintained The Arcade Fire's standards.
I'm not doing them justice.
Red Hot Chili Peppers was next on the big stage. Call it frat-friendly jock-rock if you will–it is undoubtedly–but their set was what festivals like Coachella were created to showcase: unapologetic crowd-pleasers that make people want to move. It's easy to pick apart the by-now-obligatory tunes they played–Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," Blood Sugar Sex Magik's "Give It Away," and "Under The Bridge–but you will earn the license to do so only after you have incited to 50,000+ people to jump up and down and feel as though life is not only worth living, but a joy to experience.
As always, it was the unexpected stuff that made the show: John Frusciante's falsetto vocal take on Fleetwood Mac's "Songbird" was puppy-dog-sweet; and the Frusciante-fronted cover of Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" was incredible. It wasn't his vocal that made it so, of course, but Flea's nimble fingers, which tackled the carpal-tunnel-syndrome-inducing doubletime bassline, as if it weren't a challenge.
DJ Tiesto closed out the main stage (ending with "Adagio For Strings" which was really odd), but with a nighttime breeze blowing away the residual heat and making long sprints possible again, Coachella became a carnival of delights once again.
The Black Keys kicked ass in the Mojave Tent. Magic Potion's "Your Touch" was amazing, bypassing Led Zeppelin's cock-rock blues-revival to the Mississippi Delta origins of the genre. My conclusion: None More Blues.
The Rapture spazzed out nicely in the Sahara Tent, playing a surprisingly long set of disco-punk (heavy on the first term) imbued with an unmistakable sense of fun. The last line of "Whoo! Alright Yeah… Uh Huh" summed up the room's wholly positive vibe nicely: "I used to think life's a bitter pill but it's a grand old time."
Caught only the tail-end of The Good, The Bad, And The Queen (i.e. the unnamed project responsible for said album, starring Damon Albarn, Paul Simonon, Simon Tong, and Tony Allen) at the Outdoor Theatre, and saw what was not merely a reggae-inspired couple of songs but a full-on Caribbean voyage, topped off with a rapid-fire rap from the band's guest, Syrian rapper Eslam Jarwaad.
Haplessly missing a huge chunk of a set of music from a quartet of heroes felt a little pathetic, but you really have to accept the Bad with the Good (so to speak) at Coachella. With five stages of simultaneous music, Coachella isn't really a venue where you go to see bands. It's a venue where you go to get a taste of more bands than you can handle, in order to ferret out which bands you will return to later.
Put more succinctly, Coachella is one giant iPod Shuffle, spewing out the ultimate mix of au courant singles to an attention-deficit-disordered generation.
To which I belong.