An in-depth report from the desert festival

    [Part 2 of 2]

    Here is the second part of Aaron Rietz’s notes on Coachella …



    Sunday morning was just as scorching. With rosy sun-baked cheeks and ringing ears from the day before, I wearily headed back in for another round.

    Gracing us with their lovely presence all the way from Canada was Toronto’s Broken Social Scene. As a huge fan of their breakthrough album and one of last year’s best, You Forgot It In People, I anticipated their live show. All the elements were in place and a god somewhere smiled to make this a beautiful set. When one guitarist was sufficiently moved enough to say, “We’re all about love,” it might have been taken as trite, but even this grandiose phrase proved true when one of the family, John Crossingham, proposed to his thrilled girlfriend. Their set ended in the climactic finale of “KC Accidental,” heavy drumming fighting a crescendo of flighty guitars and a horn section that finally chimed in, echoing the melody while teasing it to ecstasy.

    Although sometimes dubbed pejoratively as “emo-hop,” Atmosphere has one of the more insightful, creative emcees around in Slug. He made the trip worthwhile with his a capella, spoken-word-style flows but had to battle a torrent of technical problems — or, more precisely, melting wax. Instead of watching him fight the loss of beats, I opted over to the dance tent for 2 many DJ’s.

    You never know what a set from the boys also known as Soulwax is going to present. Just listen to their commercial debut under the 2 many DJ’s moniker, Live From Radio Soulwax, to get an idea about how they put the pop formula back in dance music. This time around they managed to fit in such diverse sounds (Metallica, Green Velvet, the Rapture, Felix da Housecat) in the first half an hour. They are among none in actually converting the whole mash-up craze into a cohesive and variable performance that isn’t steaming with throwaway novelty stink.

    Like a few of Saturday’s performers, Omaha’s Cursive was subject to the same difficulty of translating their sound into an arena-sized performance. It was obvious they had admirers — the emo-tive wail of Tim Kasher was matched word-for-word by scores of screaming fans — but their darkened cabaret masochism withered during the late afternoon sun. One of Kasher’s own lyrics summed it up for the angular five-piece: “We all know art is hard.”

    The garage-inspired futurism of Dizzee Rascal was another of the festival’s many highlights. When the curious amusement of underexposed Americans is involved, it never fails to throw a rapping black man with a British accent up on stage; we normally associate this accent with polite, tea-sipping indie rockers. It is often said of Brits that they don’t rap: for Dizzee this is true, he simply spits compounded verbiage at you in maniacal chunks. The monster bass lines, swooping synths and percussion madness of his Boy In Da Corner was one of the most innovative debuts of recent years. At the festival Dizzee gave us a few a capellas to scream about and shook everyone up with his singles “Jus A Rascal” and “Fix Up, Look Sharp.”

    Scott Herren lead a full contingent of musicians into the heat this weekend. On Saturday, his band Savath & Savalas fleshed out a score of airy downtempo post-rock numbers, fronted by Catalan singer Eva Puyeulo Muns. Although Herren had a boatload of electronics set up, the band apparently did most of the work. He remained content with shaking a few noisemakers and watching from behind a laptop. The results were less than impressive and the crowd seemed antsy until things finished up with a couple of rockier tunes.

    But Sunday was a different story for Herren. The Prefuse 73 ensemble, benefiting from a night spot in the Gobi tent, served up some much needed vitality. A live drummer, bassist and keyboardist provided the groove-heavy backbone that was induced into aural ecstasy by Herren and another fellow fucking things up from the digital end. A turntabilist figured in the mix as well. The result was a less glitch-ified but still highly challenging and cerebral take on the Prefuse catalogue that left no wallflowers among the crowd.

    The Flaming Lips, already well known for their exuberant stage theatrics, upped the ante with songs from their last two albums, 1999’s The Soft Bulletin and 2003’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. Visitors to their recent outings are well familiar with flashlight-bearing dancing animals, the never-ending confetti filled balloons, the blood smearing, and the schlocky Japanese films running in the background.

    But on this fateful night, singer Wayne Coyne demonstrated the impossible: he descended in a giant bubble from outer space and proceeded to roll across the tightly packed crowd in front of the main stage. An intro of Carmina Burana segued them into a set that felt remarkably brief due to tight scheduling and Coyne’s crabwise rants. Confronted with this lack of time they weren’t able to play their closing song, and finished instead with a birthday ode to Beck’s unborn child. This gave me time to rush over to the outdoor theater to catch Basement Jaxx.

    The innovative house duo of Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Burton has progressed with every album, applying layer upon layer of increasingly dense production. This peaked with last year’s outstanding Kish Kash, which saw them collaborating with tons of famous guest vocalists and relying heavily on pop song structure. Their twin ambition is to throw huge parties, as evidenced by the tremendous entourage in tow for their Coachella performance. Live guitar, bass and drum kit backed a rotating cast of singers, including Dizzee Rascal, who was on-hand to do his piece for “Lucky Star.”

    It was also one of the more visually engaging shows of the weekend: a large projection screen flashed images of records, graffiti and politicians while an array of dancers and the ambience of club-type lighting completed an overwhelming stage. A short break from album favorites featured a new track, although presumably not for commercial release. They opened with the bass riff from the White Stripes‘ “Seven Nation Army” only to drop a funky beat over it and then mix in vocals from 50 Cent “In da Club,” demonstrating that the group is keen on the whole mash-up phenomenon as well. As a finale, moshing gorillas emerged from backstage to kick off the biggest dance moment from the whole weekend, “Where’s Your Head At.”

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    As things were rounding up I kept reflecting on how many of the performers strove to move themselves beyond only musical relevance and into the political arena. Instead of focusing on the mess of the Iraq, most were talking about the upcoming election and cheerleading against George W. Bush to the extent it felt like a Democratic Party fundraiser. Saul Williams reminded the crowd that if younger voters were mobilized, they would decide the election single-handedly — although as a friend snidely pointed out, this would only be if they all voted for the same person.

    I heard punditry from the expected places: Sage Francis, Living Legends, the (International) Noise Conspiracy, and Q and Not U all had a few words to say about the state of the nation and grievous misdeeds committed in our name. Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra went the comical route with their chant to round up all the usual suspects: “Bush, indictment! Cheney, indictment! Rumsfield, inditement!”

    But it was the more unexpected acts that demonstrated how much the whole community appears to be united against the actions of the president. Wayne Coyne donned a pair of humungoid boxing gloves to lead a cheer of “Beat Bush!” Even Basement Jaxx flashed unflattering pictures of the president followed by a “No war” bit slyly slipped into their song “Cish Cash.” But it was ultimately just more adornment for a weekend that sometimes bordered on the outrageous and uncivil.

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    The last advertised event was a massive hour and a half set from the Cure. If I were sitting across a hot coffee among friends, I would doubtlessly criticize this band for making albums long after they should have stopped or for the ceaseless whoring that Robert Smith subjects himself to. But witnessing them live, it was easy to see how nearly everyone in attendance felt so much affinity with this man and his legacy of songs, both personal and magical.

    Robert Smith idolaters crowded the front of the main stage all day long, their only goal to stake out a place for this event. They were appeased with a massive set that featured largely hits and favorites and a few glimpses of new material that didn’t sound half shabby. The lighting was of such an intense variety, that outside of a U2 concert, you would never see this much grandeur and theatrics. As the night wore on, the intensity switched to full bore and Robert Smith began to melt away under so many spinning lights. Almost everyone had slumped down to the grass: in appreciation, in exhaustion, in reflection of a night that united all the midnight headphone wearers, thousands strong now, all hearing the same dark melodies and the same wounded cry.

    Running off into the night, somber lights played across the grass in unexpected fashion, illuminating expanses of land that were littered with splayed bodies and debris of every kind. This is where the fondest memories remain: incredible bands interspersed with mad scrambles between stages, bodies deflecting you in unintended directions, not knowing whose frequencies would be hitting you next. Always in a mad rush for something: to see another group whose name has been tantalizing you all day on the schedule, to find a place to sit for five minutes, or to use the freaking bathroom after chugging water all day.

    Coachella’s nighttime hours were glorious, a buzz of noise and light and ruckus. The images and sensations I had there are among the most lasting and powerful that live music can promise, for once a happy and dazed ringing of the ears. That feeling will stay with me for quite a long time, or at least until next year’s event blends it entirely with other cherished and fuzzy reveries.
    Read the first part of Aaron Rietz’s Coachella coverage.

    See Michael Woliansky’s take on Coachella here.