An in-depth report from the desert festival

    Coachella is a dream come true. It’s also a fucking nightmare.



    The fourth annual version of this arts and music festival, held at Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California in early May, encompassed some eighty acts playing in a superb desert locale over a scorching spring weekend. The culprits were varied enough to highlight some of the excellence from the contemporary music scene, as well as some of the banal. The bill included some of the progenitors — the Pixies, the Cure, Kraftwerk — whose influence is widespread enough to show palpably on many of the younger acts appearing. Distractions included a dozen varied art installations, a movie tent and an estimated fifty thousand music fans of every ilk and stripe: goth kids, metal chicks, punkers, stoners, blissed-out dance-heads, fashion victims, Perry Farell look-a-likes, Perry Farell, celebrities, aging rockers, hipsters, hippies, hip-hoppers, your friend’s cool parents, your little sister — a smorgasbord of freaks and fanatics, all watched and watching each other.

    For the first time in festival history, tickets for both days sold out in advance — the first day much earlier, presumably due to Radiohead and the reunited Pixies being on the bill. In a matter of time, day two’s tickets were extinguished as well, for what was perhaps the fuller lineup. The large sold-out proclamations from Coachella’s official Web site may have discouraged fans from driving into heat-drenched desert, braving the traffic and potentially having to shoulder the disappointment of listening to the show from the parking lot. Despite these hazards, I strolled right up to the ticket window and threw down $80 cash for a first day’s ticket. I was perplexed, but happy to avoid the pitfalls of purchasing scalped tickets.

    Greeted at the crowded entrance, a water tank gave a nice overhead drenching, the only instance of free-flowing water on the entire grounds. The organizers demanded that “for safety’s sake” even sealed bottled water be halted at the gates. How nicely this played into the giddy little hands of Crystal Geyser, who made a killing at $2 a pop for meager sixteen-ounce bottles. Evenings found the grounds turned into a veritable swamp of plastic, kids skating on bottles, pranksters kicking them, others with the unenviable task of herding them up. Other options for drink were available — some were willing to camp out in forty-five-minute lines for access to one of three drinking fountains — but most grinned and beared it and swilled out another $20 on top of the ticket price for enough water to stay alive.

    Despite the heat and hydration concerns, the Empire Polo fields are beautiful. Unlike the muddy hell-pits of other mega-festivals, here is only an endless plain of godly green. A lack of swirling dust storms presents you with the possibility of even going shoeless, an option in which I readily indulged. Once the sun began to descend behind the desert hills, an aura of calm simultaneously descended on the grounds and their populace. The advertisements that grace the pages of every music rag around are true: sprawling desert hills illuminated by the shocking shades of an amber sphere will present themselves to you. But the gorgeous scenery was just one of the pluses that overcompensated for the heat problem. What we really came for was the music.

    Upon reviewing the set listings one thing became immediately apparent: There is too much to see. Even the most casual music fan was bound to be overwhelmed by the selection, spread out across five different stages, with overlapping times and insane crowds to weave through in pursuit of your destination. To take in everything would be sheer madness; you were forced to pick and choose.

    My plan of action seemed almost predetermined by the aforementioned factors. I was immediately split up from my posse in a rush to witness an early act, and we were destined separated until the parking lot received our wasted bodies afterwards. Finding myself solo, I decided the best thing to do would be to wander about between the different areas, taking in a few songs from everyone I was interested in, hoping to minimize the burden of scheduling conflicts. I did, however, catch the complete sets of a number of groups, which I’ll focus on.

    * * * * * * * * *

    The first show I caught set an incredible tone for the entire day — Erase Errata fucking rocked their early set in the Mojave tent. Their mix of shrill guitar lines thrown atop a jittery but propulsive rhythm front and the ghostly wails of vocalist and sometimes trumpeter Jenny Hoysten had the assembled crowd twitching and convulsing en masse. Part Bush Tetras, part Mars and thoroughly devastating, the performance of these four young women from the Bay was incredible. Between songs, Hoysten quipped that they were convinced to play this weekend with “$100 and a liter of vodka.” Next time they’ll be offered four times that.

    After reemerging and readjusting to the brightness, I toured the grounds before descending on the Gobi tent, where Beck fans were already crowding the fringes in hopes to see his impromptu set. Luckily for me, I was there to see Washington D.C.’s Q and Not U just beforehand. These three misfits’ show opened up with them huddled around the drum kit, twiddling about and trying on different sounds until the drummer segued into beating out the first song, “Air Conditions,” from their most recent LP, Different Damage. With their characteristic twittering guitars, buzzing synths and shrieking vocals, Q and Not U ripped through most of that album and played highlights of 2000’s No Kill No Beep Beep. Closing with an extended version of “A Line in the Sand” found them back around the kit hand-jamming, trying to make the set come full circle, albeit one whose inner logic was as joyfully fractured and irrational as it comes.

    With all the action happening in the tents during the daytime hours, the crowds focused on these enormous constructions as a shelter from the blistering rays above. This worked, to an extent. The cramped sweaty masses drove the temperatures inside the tents soaring, like some damned infernal microwave that we were all subjecting ourselves to. It proved that, for at least this weekend, there was no way to beat the heat, inside or out.

    While the sound inside the tents was uniformly excellent and capable of reaching all viewing positions, some groups had to cope with the gi-normous, spread-out festival stages. I was able to catch some of … And You Will Know us by the Trail of Dead playing on the outside theater, but it seemed a futile battle for them against the winds and size of the crowd. They rely on a certain attack pattern — heavy guitar distortion and feedback crafted in the depths of a studio — that couldn’t manifest itself anywhere near as well onstage, at least this time.

    Along these same lines was the (International) Noise Conspiracy. Already a fan of their live set — a late-night slot two years ago here witnessed them win over and demolish a smaller tent — I was disappointed with their return on the main stage. Even with energizing scream-along choruses and the heady between-song banter of singer Dennis Lyxzen, their sound seemed tired and dull when driven through stadium speakers. See their potent blend of ’60s proto-punk and ’70s rock-funk in a club and this shabby appearance will be redeemed.

    When the sun began to dim, visible relief spread through faces and shoulders with the subsiding heat. I spent the twilight hours amidst a tiny but dedicated group in front of the Gobi tent. We crowded the stage, watching the setup of a group who, out of all the acts this weekend, had received an unexpectedly low level of hype, but was possibly most deserving of accolades: LCD Soundsystem. But before I start to don any critical cap, I have to divulge my fan-boy status when it comes to James Murphy. This adoration is so thick, that if this review were a Supreme Court case, I would have to excuse myself from personal interest. Admittedly, I have purchased every record his label and production team (Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy comprise the DFA) have put out.

    However critically neglected, LCD Soundsystem are stalwarts from the early punque-funque era, when dance music was best served live. No drum machines and no deejays here, just an army of percussion players, a spiky bass and some maddeningly noisy synth work, fronted by the vocal style of James Murphy, whose blend of deadpan music commentary and rambunctious cheerleading is quite charismatic for a frontman. If watching Murphy don his poses was exciting as fuck, it was nearly as funny seeing him fight with the sound team between songs (Note: otherwise the weekend was noticeably absent of technical problems). By previewing tracks from their forthcoming album, they proved that not every LCD track is a balls-out, everything-and-the-cowbell-too dance epic such as early singles “Yeah,” “Beat Connection” and “Give It Up.” The new ones tended to be shorter rock nuggets, but just as exciting.

    Sadly enough, Moving Units occupied the exact same time slot, making it the most bemoaned scheduling conflict of the entire weekend.

    I frowned after the exuberance of the LCD Soundsystem dance-fest, realizing by this time I had already missed twenty minutes of “The Return.” Few among the crowd haven’t had their curiosity piqued enough by the promise of The Pixies to head over to the main stage where the reunion was in full effect. And nobody could complain with the results. Frank Black Francis and Co. looked positively exuberant as they thrashed through all the favorites from their back catalogue. As much as I relished this prospect, it still felt unexpected and fortunate, like pulling out a bunch of old outfits that still fit and looked brand new. No new material yet, and asking for some from this established outfit seems dangerous. But they were so on point that it begged the question: Why not?

    After performing the previous year in a smallish tent, the release of Echoes attracted scores of new followers to the “dance-punk” phenomenon of The Rapture. On album the band sounds frenetic and electrified; live they came off entirely less manic. Calm and composed, Luke Jenner led the group through slackened tempo renditions of their songs. I was confused: Was lessened pace part of a design or did the young group simply not trust their playing to live hysterics? They still had the great songwriting and a stage presence though, and taking the stomp out of the songs didn’t have an effect on our gyrating hips too much.

    Amidst cancellations and rumors of continuing sickness from Thom Yorke, there were serious doubts that Radiohead would play. However, I awoke that morning to a Los Angeles Times byline that confirmed the show would indeed go on as planned. Radiohead seemed slightly less than invincible this evening though. Maybe it was the omnipresent heat or the fact that the Pixies had just played on the stage, but they didn’t hit as hard as anyone expected. If you have enough interest in the band to listen to any of the boatloads of live material floating around, then you weren’t in for any surprises. They retained much of the same play list and lighting from their recent North American tour stops. Yorke gave props to his prime motivators (R.E.M. and the Pixies) and told a short story about how they changed his life in college.

    To round off the night, I waded through the thickness that haloed the Sahara tent (frequently referred to as the rave tent; it housed an international deejay crew all day long), as seemingly every festivalgoer remaining had gotten the buzz for Kraftwerk, making a rare North American appearance. It was slightly odd though; I felt like none of the assembled knew exactly what Kraftwerk were about, they were just there for a spectacle. But when the screen lit up with those four stoic silhouettes, everyone knew they were in for a treat. Hopelessly retro video styling queued up and “Man Machine” burst from the robo-throat in a thrilling fashion. They went on to legendary tracks like “Computer World,” “Trans Europe Express,” and “Tour de France” before I regrettably wandered off to catch the hip-hop finale at the outdoor stage.

    With the snare-kick combo devastating head space all over the now desolate grounds, I stumbled onto the scene when Kool Keith‘s “Spankmaster” persona was throwing down some sloppy freestyle. Attempting a Coachella overview he faltered, and fell back on counting out numbers. Making it to an emphatic “twenty-four, uhhnnnn!” — not once, but twice — he somehow got the heads to call him out for another round, which didn’t prove any better. By this time his own deejay was trying to pull him off stage, promising the attention of lovely ladies back at the hotel. Eventually sanity prevailed and Keith was corralled to make way for the man with the metal face to swoop onstage.

    If anyone is worthy of pulling Kool Keith off the throne of wacky aliases it’s Daniel Dumile. The man known primarily as MF Doom plugged in the CD player and displayed a survey of his career, with numbers pulled from his classic Operation: Doomsday! and the recent stellar collab with Madlib, Madvillian. Also in the house were King Geedorah and Viktor Vaughn. Doom’s production work is excellent, drawing heavily on nostalgic samples and gritty break-beats, but it also drowned out another, even more compelling aspect of his work. The lyrical prowess that made him a legend struggled to overcome the racket put out by the deafening sound system. Doom wowed ’em anyways, although most folks had headed out to the parking lot to gear up for another day or a long drive home.

    Read the second part of Aaron Rietz’s Coachell coverage.

    See Michael Woliansky’s take on Coachella here.