When it comes to adventures in music, you can do a lot worse than Coachella - a kaleidoscope of bands and fans spanning all manner of genres and scenes. Rhapsody sent its rock editor, Justin Farrar, out to the desert to get his take on the whole big mess. Dig his wrap-ups in this space over the next three days.
Though I don't step foot on the festival grounds -- an obscenely picturesque nexus of severe desert landscape and artificially verdant oasis -- until early Friday afternoon, my Coachella 2011 experience commences the evening prior, over 2,000 miles due east. To be specific: gate B27, in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. While waiting for a direct flight to Ontario International Airport, the closet hub to the festival, about 5 hours west, I overhear the C-word over a half a dozen times. The plane, as it turns out, is littered with college kids and young folk all gearing up for a killer weekend of music, sun, fun and sundry activities too risqué to itemize here. I end up sitting next to two Coachella kids: Raj, a student at Georgia Tech studying aerospace engineering, and a girl sporting a Jason Mraz straw fedora, whose name now escapes me, sadly. We don’t talk much; everybody rocks little white ear buds for the most part. But near flight's end the ice is broken, and we rap about whom we want to see perform, how many times they’ve gone to Coachella (several) and what's the best approach to lodging, hotel or camping. When asked whom she is excited to catch the young lady replies like a true teenie bopper, “Um, The Strokes and Arcade Fire and…um…I can’t think of anybody else right now.” Raj, who is from The OC (his three-day pass was a birthday gift from mom and dad), answers without hesitation: English indie-folkies Mumford & Sons and German electro-dude Boys Noize, whose 2008 mix Bugged Out! Presents Suck My Deck serves as his soundtrack while studying for a test on Monday (Raj will hop on the red eye back to The ATL Sunday night).
The sense of pilgrimage I feel during the flight carries over to the drive into the California desert. Already, Interstate 10 is packed with cars rocketing toward the festival, making their way past giant wind turbines and an absurd number of identical Stevie Nicks billboards promoting her upcoming appearance at the nearby Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio. Some of these cars contain four, even five, bobbing heads; others are tattooed in raw neon graffiti: "The Strokes Rock," "Carpoolchella" and my personal favorite, "Indie Rock Rocks!"
On to the festival, boys and girls…
Opening day, Friday. It's my favorite line-up of the weekend, totally front-loaded, from cutting-edge electronic musicians Mount Kimbie and Kyle Hall to alt-pop freaks Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti and Warpaint. Unfortunately, the high volume of quality music means sets overlap, forcing me to bop about the festival's six stages and catch snippets, rather than entire performances.
First up, at 3:00 p.m., is Cold Cave, on the Mojave stage. The modernist in me doesn't want to dig a band that worships vintage synth-pop, minimal wave and Goth so shamelessly. But what distinguishes Cold Cave -- a trio of Twilight-worthy vampires, ones capable of daylight activities, obviously -- is singer Wesley Eisold. He's one of the few modern retro-singers capable of actually crooning. I mean, he doesn't possess the gifts of Andy McCluskey (OMD) or even Philip Oakley (The Human League), yet he has evolved his craft with each record. Luckily, Cold Cave played the one tune I really wanted hear, "The Great Pan is Dead," off their new album Cherish The Light Years on Matador Records. It's a tour de force for sure: dramatically passionate, yet mechanically unrelenting at the same time. Quickly making my way over to Oasis to see Kyle Hall, I encounter the coolest stage set-up in all of Coachella land, which isn't short on sculptural fantasy. It's a massive geodesic dome tricked-out with a surround-sound system and a DJ booth perched inside a massive tree made of cardboard. Sprawling limbs and leaves extend out over the crowd. Oasis could've been a Wookiee nightclub set in the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. If Hall was supposed to be inaugurating the weekend, nobody told him. There's a good reason why Detroit badasses like Theo Parrish and Rick Wilhite have raved about the young DJ's skills. Hall is awesome. Employing both vinyl and compact disc, he trims his set's ascent/descent while blowing out its peak, as if it is 3 a.m., not 4 p.m. In other words, he brings hard techno funk almost exclusively. And folks are loving it.
Quick fashion insight: as the more subculturally-aware readers can guess, Oasis attracts a lot of raver threads: furry boots, hula hoops, neon undies, etc. Just to my right stands a sweaty, tall dude who looks like a DayGlo Jesus harboring a Native American fetish. I live in a freaky mountain town in southern Appalachia, one which supports a weekly civic drum circle, so none of this outrageousness makes me blink. That said, one dude dancing up front bugs the hell out of me. He's no raver, however; he's just a dude wearing a Boston Red Sox cap and a black tee with big, white block letters that read "EAST VILLAGE." If you don't get it, have the biggest baseball fan you know read what I just wrote. He, or she, will guffaw, too.
Warpaint. The group plays Coachella's second largest stage. I was a little worried about this beforehand, because they aren't charismatic performers, necessarily. They're serious musicians with sonic exploration on their minds first and foremost. But alas, my concerns were for naught. The sizeable crowd, a good portion of which is sprawled-out on the grass, seemingly floating through a deep stoned bliss, understands the score well: Warpaint makes music -- however poppy and smooth at first blush -- for heads. In front of a wall of sun-drenched palms, the all-female quartet, sweating profusely, casts its sly spell: contemplative avant-pop featuring finely layered vocals and proggy grooves that shift, stutter and dissolve with graceful restlessness. Every song, particularly the double-shot of "Composure" and the audience favorite "Undertow," both of which appear on their debut album The Fool, is a silky weave propelled by drummer Stella Mozgawa and bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg, both of whom are well versed in the rhythmic dynamics unique to dub and post-punk funk, respectively. Some time around 6 p.m., or maybe later, I weave my way up to the front of the Gobi stage, where I quickly mutate into a grizzled, old 30-something drowning in a sea of chillwave teens undulating to the reverb-soaked sounds of their high priests Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti. Mind you, when I say "teens" I don't mean 18-year-old college freshman like my pal Raj. I'm talking high school kids who still go to gym class. Over the last year or so the Internet seems to have produced a lot of copy, most of it written by clueless adults obviously, on how chillwave is a manufactured trend. It ain't "real," they cry. Well, try telling that to the two little girls next to me rocking glow-in-the-dark Huey Lewis shades, oversized tropical tees and cheap love beads. Of course, they'll move on to something new and cool ultimately, but that's just the nature of pop obsession. It's always been that way.
As for Pink, he puts on scintillating theatre, specifically because it teeters on the edge of fiction and reality. Resembling a cross between Philly punk legend Mikey Wild, an extra in the movie Valley Girl and bleach-blonde Jeffrey Lee Pierce circa the Miami album, the trickster refuses to face his baby-faced tribe, paces about the stage nervously and frequently batters his drummer's cymbals with his microphone. The fact that Pink's last album, 2010's Before Today, cracked the Billboard Top 200 is mind blowing. He, and his music, are flat-out weird. More than halfway through the set, Pink tops himself when he mutters something to the effect, "I know you hate me, but I'm sorry, we're not going to play anymore." He then unplugs the microphone and skulks off the stage. This is either cheeky and intentional or truly unintended eccentricity. Probably a mix of both, because the large crowd utterly adores him. Music stops, his drummer follows him and the two keyboardist/guitar players flanking the sides look at each other with casual bewilderment. After the drummer returns, without Pink, the band starts-up again. Those keyboard/guitar guys are now sharing lead vocals. Minus Pink's monotone vocals and onstage histrionics, the music feels less avant-garde, more like quirky pub rock dipped in sustained echo. It's damn good. Their leader returns eventually, yet he does nothing at all save stand in the center of the stage and casually smoke a fag. He's enjoying his own music, it appears. Just another fan of chillwave!
After that glorious mess, the plan is to, uh, chill. Maybe seek out shade, whose presence is expanding now that the sun is falling. But ecstatic sounds emanating from the main Coachella stage draw me in. Full disclosure time: I don't know a thing about Ms. Lauryn Hill other than she was in The Fugees and produces music that is popularly tagged hip-hop/R&B. That sounds ludicrous, I know. But it's a big world, people, filled with a ton of music. And this music critic's bandwith is only so wide. So yeah, I can't cite song titles or any other particulars; what I can do is ruminate on the silliness of genre classification, because that's exactly what Hill -- decked-out in hoops the size of Saturn's rings and a gold chain as thick as the Titanic's anchor cable -- smashed to pieces. Yes, her music is steeped in hip-hop and rhythm and blues, but what she's unleashing right this very second is raw-ass funk rock, the toughest music of the day. Only Kyle Hall's set can compare. Her band is massive and intense: drums, percussion, keys, bass, back-up singers, hot-licks guitar and a full New Orleans brass band swaying in the rear. There are stretches when the ensemble isn't even playing a particular song. They're just jamming hard, while Ms. Hill's words melt into a litany of shrieks, cries and wails. This is true fusion music.
Ironically, Hill rocked harder than the other two rock bands I catch later in the evening: The Black Keys and Kings of Leon. Both play the main stage after Interpol, who followed Hill, actually. The Keys -- Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney -- are a well-studied band that has been putting out reliably enjoyable records for nearly a decade now. But the limited scope of their bluesy classic-rock comes to a fore during their performance. The duo, augmented by bass and keyboards for their Coachella gig, is hard-working and no frills. Yet their music lacks the abandon and sense of freewheeling creativity that Hill dropped earlier. Of course, my perception might be blurred by the fact that the sound isn't top notch for The Keys -- not loud enough, dear sound man. Plus, the giant video monitors on either side of the stage are inoperative for a good 20 minutes. But over all, The Black Keys' music in 2011 feels decidedly staid, like they’re a really well-oiled bar rock band playing just another gig. More evolution, boys! At this point in the evening, some time after 10 p.m., the main stage is a sticky mass of sweat, exposed skin and booze. Kings of Leon are up there, and boy, are they boring. Oh sure, they're rock stars with flashy lights and killer sound, but there's nothing there, musically, that's vital. That said, I don't despise them. Hell, I can appreciate any act that is so extremely deft at invoking such abject derision. It seems as if everybody in the solar system disses Kings of Leon these days. Hating on them has become a national pastime. If you have the inclination, check out the Coachella message board and all the vile posts that popped-up after the group's 2011 slot was announced. It's filled with grade-A zings.
On the other hand, if that really is the case, then who are all these people around me with their hands in the air, cooing every lyric? I suspect they are the same folks who go around slagging them on message boards. That doesn't make a lot of sense, but here's my theory (which I have time to ponder, since the music is, like I just pointed out, boring): people hate themselves for loving the four Followill brothers. The band possesses an uncanny knack for feeding fans exactly what they want: grunge, garage rock, indie, adult-alternative pop, classic rock, you name it. There's a part of us that enjoys getting exactly what we want. But there's also another part that winds up despising the group for never feeding us anything new, for never feeding us anything unexpected, even if it sucks. In this sense, Kings of Leon, who are playing before what looks like the largest crowd of the evening, are really, truly generic. And, of course, I'm totally exhausted and delirious. Time for bed.