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.
Saturday at Coachella: before digging into the jams, we need to address two of the festival's most potent demons: heat and traffic. The former is worse today, a blistering 98 degrees. Yowsa. The latter is, however, less intense. Yesterday, cars were backed-up to Jefferson Street, which isn't anywhere near the festival grounds, in all honesty. If I were a Coachella veteran, then I'd tell every newbie seeking my highly prized wisdom to utilize one of the many shuttle services. Or even better: rent a bicycle. Then again, there is one upside to driving, and that's getting to park in the outer lots. From there, the path to the grounds leads attendees through the all too colorful car-camping grounds.
For the anthropologist in all of us, these campsites -- the totality of which can rightly be called a modern day Bartertown for 24-hour party people -- contain a motley assortment of sub-cultural tribes that offer quality observation along the way: beefcakes with leathery pecs boozing and whooping at the scantily clad pop tarts passing by, indie kids dressed as neon Native Americans knocking back Jell-O shots, classic Deadheads just chillin', punks standing around looking bored and Burning Man types flying pirate flags while maintaining snazzy encampments laced in all manner of disco lighting. The car-camping grounds are also home to its own bundle of food stands and oddball activities, including a makeshift roller-derby rink, what looks like a space designed for bicycle jousting and a tiny stage for impromptu jam sessions.
Now, time for a little music talk. Today's daytime and early evening line-up isn't as adventurous as yesterday's. Many slots are occupied either by middle-of-the-road indie rockers or career touring acts. I'm talking about Gogol Bordello, The New Pornographers, The Kills, Broken Social Scene, Elbow, Foals and even Conor Oberst's Bright Eyes (whose appearance is a big deal for a lot of other folks). On the other hand, today also features two bands whom I really, truly love: Animal Collective and (the band I refuse to call the London) Suede, whom I absolutely worshipped in my late teens. Their second album, 1994's Dog Man Star, will one day be recognized as the art-rock masterpiece that it is.
After catching a portion of Cults' lo-fi pop fun at Gobi, I make my way to the main stage to check out the always colorful Erykah Badu. I'm not a hardcore fan, but whenever I hear a track I usually dig it. Plus, I'm a fellow JKF conspiracy buff (see the video for "Window Seat"). As with Ms. Lauryn Hill the day before, Badu's instrumentation is extensive: flute, trumpet, bass, drums, percussion and a bevy of backing singers. Badu herself rocks a set of digital drum pads that possess profound low-end. With obscene bravado, she waltzes out in oversized military-green overalls, a top hat and witchy woman lace a la Stevie Nicks. Badu is one audaciously foul-mouthed maven and street poet. One minute she's cajoling her fans with niceties; the next she's flipping them the bird. Then, before you know it, she's grinding the microphone stand and moaning "When niggas turn into gods" (from "The Healer"). Sadly, feedback and other technical difficulties mar the set, but the band battles through them.
The contrast with Hill is an interesting one. In the live setting, both care little for recreating the song structures found on their respective albums. This is cool. But where Hill's brand of interpretation employs brute force, Badu weaves individual tracks into a sweeping suite, one that's jarring in its progressive intensity. Rhythmically, she's an advanced thinker. She isn't afraid to undermine her own grooves. Just about every time the crowd falls under her spell, she awakens them violently by banging out a jagged funk line on her drum pads. What's awesome about Badu is how she's definitely influenced by fusion-era Miles (On the Corner, Bitches Brew, Agharta), in addition to more traditional neo-soul inspirations such as Marvin Gaye and Sly & The Family Stone.
It's not long after Badu's set that the sun falls behind the sandy mountains surrounding Coachella. Navigating the grounds at night, in the dark, is an event in and of itself. Despite the fact that security is heavy when entering the festival, foot traffic is wonderfully anarchic once inside. Every path between stages is a maze of quantum uncertainty: humans-as-electrons perpetually bumping into one another. Folks sprawl out, as well as pass out, wherever they please. Adding to the grand chaos is a noticeable lack of utility lighting. The only significant illumination is supplied by the stages and various neon sculptures -- imported from Burning Man, I believe. Conspicuously un-credited (the experience is what matters, not who made what), these exotic works serves as gathering points for roving kids in need of respite. Some of this stuff makes for fantastical eye candy: glowing human treadmills, towering crystallized flora supported by mosaic stalks, massive insectoid skeletons, and asparagus-like plants undulating suggestively. Yet another cool oddity is the Reelmobile, which is a small school bus that's been transformed into a giant, glowing reel-to-reel machine replete with giant volume knobs.
It's about 8:20 p.m. or so, and I just arrived at the Mojave stage to check out Zack de la Rocha's new band, One Day as a Lion (who released a lone self-titled EP back in 2008). The project, which I have yet to hear, sounds intriguing, as it also features drummer Jon Theodore, formerly of The Mars Volta, and for live shows, The Locust's Joey Karam and his enormous bank of gut-rupturing electronics and synthesizers. Sadly, the group is running 10 minutes late. This doesn't sound like much, but when punk icons Wire are scheduled to play the next stage over at 8:40 p.m., every minute counts. The two songs I do catch are impressive: crunchy alternative metal with mosh-pit aggression, nasty hip-hop beats perfect for gangsta arm-swaying and de la Rocha's razor-wire harangues filtered through thick echo. Karam puts the music over the top, with a funky surge of electric weirdness that pummels the audience's lower chakras. All in all, the group's aesthetic feels distinctly Californian, not far removed from the Mike Patton/Faith No More realm. The question that One Day as a Lion's appearance at this year's Coachella begs is this: why isn't there more metal and hardcore at this festival? It's something I'd love to ask festival organizers.
Wire, over at Gobi, put on a solid, if not entirely enthralling, performance. Though the group released an album, Red Barked Tree, in January, the crowd freaks hardest for the older material from the 1977 to '79 zone: Pink Flag, Chairs Missing and 154. What the band lacks in youth and moxie, they more than make-up for in precision and attention to detail. Even when Wire skirt too near to alt-pop boredom, their bass, guitars and drums sound better than those of any other band I've seen at Coachella so far. They're punchy, jagged and prickly to the point of sonic perfection.
Let's now talk about unlikely pop stars, because it's time for Animal Collective. They've just turned the main stage into a grid of white-light intensity. A wailing drone of howls and bass flatten the festival grounds, instantaneously. This isn't just the loudest show of the weekend; it's an all-out assault on the senses: wondrous, but ultimately freaky to the max. It seems the more popular Animal Collective become, the weirder their music gets. As David Portner (a.k.a. Avey Tare) tells the audience, "We came to bring the weird -- and the fun." All those neon Native Americans partying in the car-camping grounds earlier today are now up front, dancing underneath giant monitors that sear the eyeballs with brilliant psychedelic goop (excerpts from their "visual album" ODDSAC). Suspended over the band -- which includes, after a four-year hiatus, Josh Gibb (a.k.a. Deakin) -- are three giant cubes spitting out even more gnarly colors. And yes, we're nearing Pink Floyd multi-media bombast here. At certain points the visuals hit near seizure-inducing levels, as does Animal Collective's hypnotically spastic collage pop, which nowadays contains very little of the band's original folksy underpinnings. This is electronic music, predominantly. Portner, and not the more pastoral Noah Lennox (a.k.a. Panda Bear), seems to be leading the charge into a more extreme aesthetic. About 10 minutes in the quartet drops a radically retooled version of "Did You See the Words," from the 2005 album Feels. This rendition is way less playful and way, way more scorched and tweaked. From there, Animal Collective only "bring the weird" even harder. I really wish I could stay until performance end, but another longtime love is calling me from across the grounds.
The fact that I'm bailing on Animal Collective to go see (the band I refuse to call The London) Suede betrays my 30-something vintage. As I mentioned in my Coachella prep-list post, this show is a bittersweet one. Back in 1993, when I was a freshman brat attending Western Michigan University, my pals and I utterly worshipped (the band I refuse to call The London) Suede. When we found out they were scheduled to play Detroit on their first tour of the States, we gripped tickets immediately. The gig never went down, however. We made the two-hour trek only to discover they had cancelled on us. It was a serious bummer. I was pissed-off for a long time.
So here we are, all of us, the band and I, together. Finally. Well, almost all of us. Original guitarist Bernard Butler isn't participating in the current string of reunion gigs. On six-string is Richard Oakes, who replaced his predecessor back in 1994, so he's totally legit in terms of old-school cred. Dressed in crisp black (Interpol fans, please take note), the band unleashes a superior performance. Brett Anderson, his soaring voice in perfect shape, is sexy and sassy while posturing, posing and mugging to the extreme. He has one goal in mind: to slay the crowd before him. Then again, maybe I'm incapable of objective evaluation in this instance. I'm a fan before all else. With every single lyric to "Animal Nitrate," "The Drowners" and "Pantomime Horse" passing my lips, it's as if the last 18 years hadn't even existed. Rock and roll can really be fun, sometimes.
Arcade Fire are the big-time headliners of the evening. My sincerest apologies to my old pal Doug, a massive fan, but I find this band's music to be excessively dull. Of course, they do have the unenviable task of following Animal Collective on Coachella's main stage. Way more fun than watching Arcade Fire reproduce -- with little imagination, mind you -- hits from the Grammy-winning album The Suburbs is witnessing all those neon Native Americans taking their antics to new heights. At one point, I spy three different tribal dance circles. "Man," I think to myself, "if Coachella is what America was like before whitey came, then it must've been one killer place." Good night.