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 from the past three days.
As Stephanie Benson, my intrepid editor here at Rhapsody, pointed out while covering Coachella last year, Sunday is all about haggard faces and genuine exhaustion. Driving in for the fest's final day (and by the way, check out Moritz von Oswald Trio's Horizontal Structures albumit's the perfect desert soundtrack), I pass a Mobile station just as a rainbow-infused chillwaver oh-so-slowly crawls out of her car, grabbing ahold of the gas nozzle and letting out one of the more extreme yawns in the history of human fatigue. It encapsulates the day perfectly.
Important to keep in mind: This exhaustion doesn't require good-times boozing, necessarilythe chief instigator isn't beer and liquor, but that blazing ball of radiation in the sky. Not to riff like your mother, but don't take the sun lightly out here in the desert. It will, without mercy, destroy you. Also, sunscreen: Apply it liberally and with regularity.
Now that I'm on the grounds for the day, I'm busy knocking back not one, but two açaí smoothies. That's because I have some tremendous sounds to take in, from hardcore badasses OFF! to the mighty Lighting Bolt. Then there's a trio of dubstep DJs -- Joy Orbison, Kode9 and Ramadanman -- over at the Oasis stage, which I haven't been back to since Friday. After all that, it will be time to get suburban and check in with the Strokes, before concluding with who else but the one and only Kanye West.
Time to kick OFF!
You could say the quartet, in the middle of its first national tour, is a nostalgia act worshipping vintage California hardcore. But "nostalgia" is a word loaded with negativity. Who cares if a group, be it OFF! or even Cold Cave, sound as if they've jumped in a DeLorean DMC-12 and traveled through time from 1982 to 2011? Modernism's forward goose-step is a nasty myth. Plus, singer Keith Morris, who helped invent the genre in question as a member of both Black Flag and, later, The Circle Jerks, has easily earned the right to revisit the music of his youth. His current bandalso featuring members of Redd Kross, Burning Brides, Hot Snakes, Earthless and Rocket from the Cryptabsolutely smokes. During OFF!'s appropriately truncated set, it's fun to hone in on Morris: The way he grips the microphone, dips down and presses his lips to it I'm watching a living template.
After OFF! screeches to a halt, I mosey over to the Mojave stage to catch Health. The Los Angeles quartet aren't flawless, but what they're striving for is forceful and LOUD. They're filtering the tradition from which they emergeWest Coast post-hardcore, from Slap a Ham spazz-and-grind to such artier fare as Total Shutdown and Burmese through synthesized dance jammers and Gang Gang Dance-inspired drum-circle/tribal-séance grooviness. The group has even released two collections of remixes, Health//Disco and Health::Disco2. But make no mistake about it, these guys are hardcore, yo: dual screamers, start/stop whiplash and blast beats out the wazoo. Drummer Benjamin Jared Miller is a beast, frenzied and brutal, yet also dangerously precise.
Dashing over to that giant geodesic dome/treehouse known as Oasis, I catch a snippet of Nas and Damian Marley on the main stage. Last year they released an album together, Distant Relatives. However, in my decidedly humble opinion, their performance doesn't feel like true collaboration -- more like two distinct artists taking turns in the spotlight. The crowd is surely the largest of any daytime performance so far. At one point, Marley shouts out, "How many of you like Bob Marley?" This is a funny question to ask, considering the target audience. It's like crashing an AA meeting and shouting, "How many of you like alcohol?"
Anyway, on to the Oasis.
This stage is quite packed today; Joy Orbison, Kode9 and Ramadanman are the biggies. In other words: bass, bass and more bass. These three also embody the fractured state of dubstep in 2011. If you're a fan, then you know the genre inspires an "It's dead and over, folks" article on a weekly basis; on the L.A. Times' music blog, writer Jeff Weiss recently referred to Orbison as bringing "post-dubstep to those unaware that dubstep is over." Anecdotally speaking, I've seen the music called "the nü metal of dance music" and "nothing more than r&b with synths, nowadays." Dubstep is definitely a flirtatious genre, often to the point of self-dissolution. Moreover, purists are probably correct in claiming the original scene and sound are no more. The music clearly lacks techno's ability to maintain its core aesthetic while also engendering endless mutation. Now, does this mean what's being called dubstep these days sucks? Not necessarily.
Orbison, one Peter O'Grady from London, is one of them hardcore flirts. Though he drops some killer tracks today, including Scuba's "Three Sided Shape" off the excellent Triangulation album, I wouldn't describe his set as dubstep; it's more like pan-bass exploration. If it possesses low-endgarage, hip-hop, funky, Miami bass, rhythm and blues, jungle, etc.then he'll toss it in there. I'm a methodical dude who gets off to sonic consistency on the microscopic level, so Orbison wanders a little too freely for me. I prefer Kode9.
Orbison's set, however finely constructed, consists of discrete songs, many of which center on diva-tinged vocals (those can be rough). Kode9's, in contrast, isn't so easily dissected. It's a purist's wet dream. This makes sense. The Scottish producer (born Steve Goodman) is one of the genre's innovators. He also runs the Hyperdub label. Rock scribe Lester Bangs, in his awesome review of Miles Davis' On the Corner, described the fusion classic as, and I'm paraphrasing here, an environmental music. It's the sound of urban America. Of the ghetto, basically. Kode9's aesthetic isn't unlike that. Swells of rumbling bass underpin the clickety-clak of heels hitting cracked pavement. Sirens, trucks and cars whiz up and down streets. Gunfire rings out, breaking through the din. Not surprisingly, Kode9's intensity and volume alienate those who prefer grooving to the party jams of Orbison, as well as those of Ramadanman, who takes over Oasis later this evening with a set that's even further removed from dubstep proper.
Twenty minutes before Lighting Bolt, our planet's most imposing rock band, is scheduled to play the Gobi stage, the setting sun floods the jagged ridges and palms in hot pink. At that very same moment, a nasty wind tears into Coachella. Dust and trash go airborne, turning into gnarly projectiles. It's an apt portent for what bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendalehailing from Providence, Rhode Islandare about to release. The duo's hyper-charged attack is joyously anthemic and deeply life-affirming. Yet it's also capable of rupturing eardrums and inciting mosh pits that leave fans bruised and sometimes bloody. Traditionally, Lightning Bolt sets up on the floor, among its fanatical devotees, but the relatively unrestrictive Coachella isn't that into anarchy (though a fierce and sizeable pit does erupt). Instead, they take to the stage. It's a trivial compromise that, in turn, offers the group an insanely massive sound system, something these underground freaks don't always get to utilize.
And so Lightning Bolt takes full advantage. Their sound is a form of crowd control, one that pushes back the less hearty. This process begins around the time they tear into "Transmissionary," from the 2009 album Earthly Delights, on Load Records. Remember what I wrote about techno up above? Its ability to transform while also keeping its sonic nucleus intact? Lightning Bolt is the exact same way. Over the years, Gibson and Chippendale (the latter sporting a fantastical mask with a microphone stitched into it) have trimmed much of the Ruins-inspired free improv marking their earlier releases. In the process, they've introduced less obscure tactics: spacey psychedelia, heavy metal's orchestral flair, vintage scuzz and even a smidgen of post-rock. This last element is especially present today.
Though Lightning Bolt's audience is smaller than those of most bands playing the Gobi stage, hats off to Coachella for booking such a vital entity. Wow. They might not be the loudest band here per se, but they are certainly the most compelling and potent.
Around the 9:30 mark, a fourth-quarter burn seeps deep into my muscles. Plus, that Lightning Bolt show has left me dazed. An iced coffee sounds so damn good. On the way to the stand, which is flanked by all manner of greasy delicacies (dearest Coachella, a few more healthy options, please), I hear three or four tracks from the Strokes, who are occupying the main stage. At the beginning of each and every one, I think to myself, "I know this tune. It's from that first album, the only one I ever owned." But I soon realize it isn't. You know how? Because all of them, however identical-sounding, ultimately lack the dancy, carefree vibe of Is This It, back when they were the Hackamore Brick of the new century: VU meets GBV meets hipster bubblegum. Just before I slip out of earshot, they drop " The Modern Age." Kids start freaking. I start humming. Then another thought passes my mind: The Strokes will go down as one of those bands that never really recreated the accidental magic of their debut album.
Kind of sad, but totally true. But hey, no time for reflection. Coachella is coming to an end, which means one thing: Kanye.
It's a solid bet that over the next couple of days you're going to read a ton of copy attempting to describe his festival-closing performance. However hyperbolic and fervent all of it reads, every word is true, really. You could rock noise-cancelling headphones and still get your money's worth. What's flooding my peepers right now is an immense and mind-numbing spectacle (as well as a logistical nightmare and ironic ode to the power of fossil fuels). Opening with "Dark Fantasy," he hovers far above the audience, an incandescent superhero. Meanwhile, an armada of modern dancers darts about the stage beneath him, translating every lyric into lavish pantomime. Over the course of their performance, these dancers earn their paychecks while Kanye burns through several wardrobe changes.
Musically, the set is a greatest-hits collection, more or less: "Flashing Lights," "Touch the Sky," "Jesus Walks," "Can't Tell Me Nothing," "Hey Mama," "Runaway," etc., etc., etc. Bon Iver even came out for "Monster."
Lets face it: When it comes to shamelessly ego-driven bombast as well as pure entertainment value, Kanye is crashing the gates of Mount Olympus and claiming his seat alongside DLR, Queen, Floyd and, of course, Cher. It's so obvious he wants to be remembered as the guy who brought Coachella to its knees in 2011. In all honesty, a lot of said theatrics are awfully yuck-yuck worthy, particularly because Kanye seems to take himself so seriously. But hey, that's something we already knew.
At show's end, fireworks invariably erupt, and Kanye and his dancers take a much-deserved bow. Though I'm bolting for home, the post-festival parties around the campgrounds are just getting started. They'll creep into tomorrow morning. Good night.
Until next year...