Music and Arts Festival
Empire Polo Field - April 29-30, 2006
Live Review by Adam McKibbin
Coachella is fucking overwhelming, for starters. Held in a desert clearly meant to be inhabited only by scorpions and retirees, it demands a lot—perhaps more than any other American music festival. You don’t casually go to Coachella; Coachella requires a gameplan, some sunscreen, some spare cash, and a strong will—whether you’re rolling VIP, rolling campground, or just rolling on ecstasy in the dance tent.
The advantage, at least for someone living in L.A., is that the endurance test weeds out the sort of asshole who will go to the Troubadour or Knitting Factory because he/she listened to a song on an mp3 blog and wants to spend the entire set—until the mp3 blog song comes on—talking to a friend about a recent blind date. Those people don’t go to Coachella. Considering the heat and the expense and the stress, the crowd is remarkably civil—even friendly. It’s a polo field almost full of people who genuinely love music.
Since it’s impossible to take in more than a fraction of the music being played, with three or four or five acts often playing simultaneously, it seems best to address the maddening, transcendent event in journal form—just one reviewer’s trip through a festival that, for him, didn’t include Kanye West or Franz Ferdinand, or Scissor Sisters or Art Brut, or Matisyahu or dear sweet James Blunt.
60,000 people enter and exit through a gate that seems meant to accommodate a crowd of about 600. It is painfully hot, though it seems somewhat mild for those who were present for 2004’s hellish hipster/hippie bake.
The Walkmen are a likable welcome wagon, looking sharp and playing their rather anonymous but catchy retro-rock—nice festival filler. Things get a little dicier across the field, where Lady Sovereign is holding forth beneath the Gobi tent. Sound isn’t great in the tents—in fact, it can be downright terrible, and kind of takes the thunder out of Lady Sov’s grime. She gives a spirited if somewhat disjointed performance nonetheless, although she causes this reviewer’s comrades to look like they all just stepped in dog shit. Time to move on…
The outdoor stages are clearly more comfortable places to casually watch a set, and Liverpool rockers The Zutons are one of the success stories from the early part of the day, doubtlessly having a first introduction to a decent amount of the audience and winning them over with a versatile set list, some extremely catchy choruses and an energetic stage presence. Animal Collective follow them and take a different approach; after a stirring run-through of “Banshee Beat,” they revert to some masturbatory improvisation that, well, wrong time, wrong place. For a “right time, right place” take on Animal Collective, try here.
The first palpable anticipation of the day is for Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, with people packing into their tent and shrieking for each of the band’s hits. The hype recipients flummox their haters by sounding pretty good live, despite playing in the worst tent for sound. There isn’t much sign of the sort of growth that will probably be necessary to keep the otherwise-inevitable backlash from occurring, but, then, Coachella would be the wrong place for a band like this to test out new material. CYHSY stick close to their record, which is just what the crowd wants—and a lot of people obey the band name and clap clap clap.
Then, heartbreak. TV on the Radio and My Morning Jacket, possibly the two best bands playing all weekend, go on at the same time. This is how friendships can be tested and band loyalties can be strained, but we make a peaceful decision, get a great spot near the stage for MMJ, and stay for the long haul. They kick ass, drawing largely from their latest record, Z, but also dipping into the back catalog for gems like “One Big Holiday.” Frontman Jim James gives it 200% and the band follows suit, attacking their riffs, coaxing the audience along, and jamming and expanding while keeping their short time window always in mind. It’s a triumphant set to an adoring audience—the guy in front of me air drums for most of it—and is easily among the weekend’s highlights.
Down close to the main stage, maybe Sigur Ros are as enchanting as they’ve been in previous visits to Southern California. From a medium distance, though, they are utterly swallowed by the venue and the event. The band’s live show is enhanced considerably by their visuals, but faced with the huge field in front of the main stage, they use their projection screens to show themselves—which often catches band members looking befuddled or upset by apparent technical difficulties onstage. They also are dealing with a relentless bass beat from the other outdoor stage.
Looking a little too much like Charles Manson, a shirtless and charismatic/enigmatic Devendra Banhart charms the gypsies back at the Gobi tent. Joined by Vetiver’s Andy Cabic—who takes lead vocals for one of his own songs—Banhart leads his band through some lovely harmonies and keeps the freak-folk from ever getting too freaky or too mellow for the festival crowd. With that said, Banhart seems like he’d be playing the same way whether you were seeing him at Coachella or in his practice space—he seems to have made peace with his surroundings, to say the least. “This Beard Is For Siobhan” is a highlight.
The aforementioned, Sigur Ros-bullying bass is the soundtrack of Damien “Jr. Gong” Marley’s flag-waving set—“Jamaica! Jamaica!” Amidst samples from his dad and all those bass-blasts from his own Welcome to Jamrock, Marley seems most impassioned when imploring the crowd to treat their lower intestines right (down with fast food!). Our group responds with a 3 A.M. trip to McDonald’s.
But that’s a long ways off. First it’s Eagles of Death Metal, the Homecoming kings of Coachella. Frontman Jesse “The Devil” Hughes is thrown off his game considerably by the excitement; he repeatedly tells the crowd about his nerves, and explains that it’s causing him to lose his voice. This hurts the set considerably, as Hughes isn’t able to get into the higher registers that make Death By Sexy a little more fun. But he’s still a wonderfully kitschy frontman, and Josh Homme, let’s just note this again, is a total bad ass. The crowd, supposedly including everyone Hughes went to school with, loooves these guys, and it’s hard not to be swept along.
Back on the main stage, first night headliners Depeche Mode sound—and this is coming from someone who doesn’t own any of their albums—like a band still in their prime. Unlike some of their main stage cohorts, they put on a big, unabashed rock show, with strobe lights and whoa-edgy camera angles and a frontman (David Gahan) who has no problem posing with his shirt off. It’s a confident set that blends their newer songs with the old faithfuls, including a late-set spin through “Personal Jesus” and the essential “Enjoy the Silence.”
Then, after all of that, in what should go down as one of the festival’s defining hours—from any year—the French duo Daft Punk play their first show on American soil in eight years, and it’s damn near perfect. For starters, they make better use of the projection screens than any band I’ve ever seen, choreographing subtle moves that seem meant just for those of us not lucky enough to secure a prime spot inside the tent. The sound is great, their sense of timing is impeccable, and the stage show is hallucinogenic-strong, with the duo appearing in their crazy robot gear atop a giant pyramid. Their best songs are some of the best songs in the genre, period, particularly when they’re being teased out from one another to delight a crowd that, about midway through, starts to have that look of “we’ll be talking about this one for awhile, won’t we?” A classic.
The second day begins with about a two-hour wait to get into a parking lot—these logistics sometimes seem to have been completely unanticipated. Remember how great Daft Punk was… Remember how great My Morning Jacket was…
Finally, inside the grounds, I find it surprisingly easy to waltz right up near the stage for Sleater-Kinney, who sound great as always. They play to their base with their setlist, which includes the eleven-minute bruiser “Let’s Call It Love” from last year’s The Woods.
Giant buzz awaits Gnarls Barkley, who come out in Wizard of Oz costumes and have such fanfare and goodwill about them that most people seem perfectly willing to overlook a rather lackluster set. Even “Crazy,” probably the single-most anticipated song from any band playing all weekend, doesn’t quite produce the euphoria expected. Again, part of this problem is surely the inferior sound at the tents, but it also seems to result from a setlist (or, perhaps, album) that doesn’t give amiable frontman Cee-Lo much of a chance to build momentum, settling instead on too many mid-tempo songs. Their set is likable, but nothing approximating the “arrival statement” that was forecast.
Back on the main stage, Karen O is yelping to nice effect as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs give the audience a healthy taste of Show Your Bones. She’s a magnetic frontwoman and always has the look of someone who’s about to be up to something. Her stage persona is also obviously aggressively sexual—if not necessarily sexy, per se. It was previously noted here that guitar master Nick Zinner steals some of O’s thunder on the album, but that the live show would be a different beast. Indeed. Live, the thunder is all hers.
Digable Planets, meanwhile, barely muster up a spirited wind, sounding like the sort of good-natured hip-hop ensemble that reliably resides in every college town. “Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)” brought back some memories, but it all mostly sounded dated and canned, and will hopefully convince organizers that Arrested Development should be low on the list of reunions-to-chase.
Madonna… the boys decide it’s not worth the fuss and, after a song or two, go off to drink beer and wait for Massive Attack—and then, this being revealed in the spirit of honest reporting, decide that the beer is going down so well and that Massive Attack is sounding so, well, moody and pleasant and boring, that the beer garden remains home until Tool. (The girls later return and give a glowing review of Madonna’s abbreviated performance.)
Tool closes the weekend on the main stage with a powerful set that introduces their new album, 10,000 Days, to their rabidly loyal (and, might I add, often downright pleasant) fans. Singer Maynard James Keenan has said that the end may come sooner than later for Tool, so fans are advised to seek them out while they can—especially if they haven’t caught the live show yet. The crowd still seems most partial to Ænima, and goes bonkers when the band opens with a raging “Stinkfist” and then kicks into full catharsis mode when they close with the title track, a brilliant piece of L.A. hope-and-hate.
Over on another stage, Scissor Sisters fuel speculation that this would be the last Coachella, saying that the lease had been lost. Goldenvoice, however, has since assured the anxious public that Coachella is here to stay—at least for the near future. Let the lineup rumors for 2007 begin.
More by this writer:
My Morning Jacket - Z
Sleater-Kinney - The Woods
Eagles of Death Metal - Death By Sexy
Yeah Yeah Yeahs - Show Your Bones
Sigur Ros - Live - October 5, 2005