Coachella 2008: Recap

    Sand. Sun. Sweat. Mountains. Palm trees. Spicy pie. Uncomfortable footwear. Thirty-minute lines for the bathroom. Forgetting where you parked your car. Laughing at the teenagers who ask “Is this Prince?” during Kraftwerk. Questionable fashion choices. The sweet smell of marijuana in the air. Overzealous security. Buying a $2 bottle of water every hour. Sunburn. Stepping on people in the dark.


    Ah, the essence of Coachella. 


    And 2008 was no different from previous years, for the most part. Aside from the obvious difference in lineup and some slight changes to the site layout, the delicious (and occasionally irksome) ingredients stayed the same. With five bands playing simultaneously all day each day and the Indio, Calif. temperatures peaking in the lower 100s, it’s impossible to catch everything–but it’s what makes each person’s experience “special” in its own way. Here’s what mine was like:


    Day One: Friday, April 25

    Traffic this year seemed better than in previous years, but getting into the festival usually takes longer than you’d expect–which meant missing some early stuff I’d been really excited about (Midnight Juggernauts, Black Kids, and Busy P). After sorting out some essentials (lavatory visit and adult beverage procurement), I stopped at the main stage to watch the Breeders, and the Deal twins were on point and enjoying themselves. 


    Next up: Cut Copy. Despite playing in the way-too-small-for-them Gobi tent way too early in the hot day, the Aussies still managed to wow the masses that gathered, and no doubt snapped up legions of new fans. They sounded terrific as they bounced through favorites from Bright Like Neon Love and new album In Ghost Colours, and their charmingly unselfconscious grooving and excited yelling–“I want to see the whole tent go crazy!,” for example, and “Everybody fucking jump!”–further helped to win over the crowd. The frenzy continued to build, eventually peaking with the final crowd-pleasing trifecta “Lights & Music,” “Future,” and “Hearts on Fire.” 


    After a short break for dinner, it was time to hit the Sahara (a.k.a. “dance”) tent. Diplo’s DJ set moved the crowd, but excitement peaked when M.I.A. made a surprise appearance (guess any beef is squashed). And sixteen years of waiting to see Aphex Twin finally culminated for me with a mind-blowing, breathtaking performance. Yes, faces were melted; yes, some people didn’t “get it.”


    Adeptly taking the crowd from a lower-key hip-hop-oriented vibe to an full-on sonic assault, Richard D. James sat calmly at his station for the entire hourlong set while flashback-inducing visuals aired on the big screens. As the music began to grow faster and more manic, the hands-down best stage props of Coachella ’08 were introduced: Four furry-costumed characters–a Snoopy-esque dalmatian, a cow, a panda, and some sort of gorilla-monster–came out of nowhere to frolic, cavort, and dance onstage for the remainder of the set, à la the “Donkey Rhubarb” video. 


    With only a handful of U.S. dates scheduled after a nearly ten-year break, I expected some hardcore fans to flock to see newly reunited the Verve bust out some epic swirly space-rock jams in the desert. Richard Ashcroft’s frontman appeal hasn’t dimmed a bit. All lips and cheekbones, with his newly cropped hair, bare feet, and passionate demeanor, it’s easy to remember why he became a rock god in the ‘90s.


    Clearly moved by the music and the crowd’s reaction, he’d hold his microphone against his heart (I originally thought he was rubbing it against his nipple–the desert had fried my brain). While the band did an amazing job throughout (my only complaint: they never played any of the early stuff), the crowd remained pretty listless until the first strains of “Bittersweet Symphony” began, and everyone jumped up and moved forward.


    Perhaps that should have been the closer. Ending with “Love Is Noise,” a brand-new okay tune (the other new track performed, “Sit & Wonder,” held greater appeal) ended up actually thinning the throngs.


    Inexplicably, there was actually a decent-size crowd excited to see Friday’s headliner, Jack “I’ve Sold My Soul to Satan to Conquer the World” Johnson, but we got outta there before we had to deal with packs of bros in the parking lot.  


    Day Two: Saturday, April 26

    Again, circumstances beyond my control led to a later festival entry on Saturday, so I sadly missed sets by MGMT, Boys Noize, and Erol Alkan. I started out with return performers Hot Chip at the insanely packed, unbelievably sweaty Sahara tent. While a late-night slot would have suited their music better (though the same can be said for most of the Sahara artists)–they still destroyed the crowd, making it hard for even the casual observers to keep from bobbing their heads. 


    The electrocentricity continued back on the main stage with Kraftwerk’s supremely well-crafted performance. Characteristically coupling high-tech sound and visuals like no others, the Godfathers of Electro’s live mastery of their classics more than made up for a lack of surprises. If I thought the crowd for Hot Chip was thick, the one for M.I.A. looked like some kind of apocalyptic nightmare where people were clamoring to get inside the tent for their last chance at salvation. Described by many as “the trainwreck of Coachella 2008”–way too many people on stage, in the tent, outside the tent, leading to crowd control and other technical difficulties–most walked away disappointed. 


    Shame on Goldenvoice for not moving this one to a larger outdoor stage (as would also have been advisable for Hot Chip and Justice). The songs were actually enjoyable, but the chaos was way too much to stick around for long.


    In an appropriate main-stage segue, Portishead gave an unforgettable performance that only served to further whet the U.S. public’s appetites for a full tour). The set was heartbreakingly beautiful and never disappointed, and Beth Gibbons’ haunting voice was given the most perfect forum in the open desert night air. Hearing staggeringly bleak lines like “Nobody loves me” delivered in that voice in that setting is something that you can’t soon forget. New songs off Third were performed alongside all of the Dummy and Portishead favorites.


    While making my way back from a bathroom break during Portishead, I happened to see a whole lot of commotion coming from the neighboring Outdoor Stage. Ah, Flogging Molly. Though I knew little about the Irish-American rock band, the band’s enthusiasm was matched only by their hardcore rabid following. It did cross my mind that the crowd’s zeal (yes, there was crowd-surfing) just might have been fueled slightly by alcohol. (Sweet moment: Frontman Dave King introducing his new bride, fiddle player Bridget Regan, to the crowd.)


    And then the moment most of us were waiting for: His Purple Majesty’s performance. Yes, Prince was twenty minutes late (as was Madonna before him). Yes, he forbid professional photography. Yes, he boldly announced, “Coachella, I am here!” after parading onstage. Yet the diva attitude stopped there: Prince came to the desert to party (and it was a nice change in mood after Portishead).


    While the crowd debated what he’d open with, he did something no one could have predicted: brought out his old frenemies Morris Day and the Time for “The Bird” and “Jungle Love,” followed by the introduction of Sheila E. for “The Glamorous Life.” The rest of the set was phenomenal, including the much-talked-about cover of “Creep.” The next-day word-of-mouth was undeniably glowing.


    Day Three: Sunday, April 27

    In the weekend’s most egregious clusterfuck, Goldenvoice made the mistake of scheduling Swervedriver, Booka Shade, Autolux, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, and Gogol Bordello for approximately the same hour. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one with “performance anxiety” about choosing the wrong sets. (Half-sets of newly reunited ‘90s indie-shoegazers Swervedriver and German electro-darlings Booka Shade eventually won out.)


    Swervedriver’s Adam Franklin et al gave a solid performance. Despite the lack of dreadlocks, fans were treated to a set almost straight out of a time capsule. Sentimentality prohibits me from holding their lack of dynamism against them). On the other hand, next door in the Sahara, Booka Shade were killing it with one of the most unanimously enjoyable experiences of the weekend. Walter Merziger and Arno Kammermeier’s infectious enthusiasm and kinetic performance effortlessly won over the dripping-wet crowd with a mix of crowd favorites like “In White Rooms” and “Night Falls” and material from their brand-new album, The Sun & The Neon Light. (If you even dabble in dance music, do not miss these guys next time they come to a town near you.) 


    Spiritualized played their expectedly mellow “Acoustic Mainlines” set to an unexpectedly sparse crowd. Jason Pierce (on acoustic guitar) and Tony Foster (on keyboards) were flanked by three female string musicians and three female gospel singers. The only glimmer of glitz in the soulful, stripped-down set were Pierce’s shiny silver shoes. The performance was only slightly marred by some irritating technical problems.


     Taking the main stage shortly before sunset, for the second time that day, was Sean Penn, who began by asking the question that had been on many minds: “What the fuck is Sean Penn doing at Coachella?” As rumored, he was there to promote his Dirty Hands Caravan, a fleet of biodiesel buses on a mission from Indio to New Orleans in the name of volunteerism. Delivering with a mixture of sincerity and humor, Penn kept his message short and sweet.


    I made a quick stop over at the Outdoor stage to check out Love and Rockets. Former Bauhaus members Daniel Ash, David J, and Kevin Haskins proved they can still rock out after all this time. In a rare reunion performance, they strangely (though perhaps purposely) skipped their biggest hit, “So Alive,” and stuck to fan favorites. The finale brought out dancing icons/alter egos the Bubblemen (for the uninitiated, bee-like costumed characters) and concluded with an onstage pillow fight, thrilling longtime followers.


     At this point in the evening, I headed to meet my friend for some food–and ran straight into Trudy from Reno 911! (Kerri Kenney-Silver) and her family. It was my only true Coachella celebrity sighting (and, after finding out the likes of David Hasselhoff, Paris Hilton, and Kim Stewart were also there, probably the only person there I would have cared to meet). She was extremely gracious and lovely while I babbled on like a neurotic fangirl. But I digress.


     After some yummy vegan Indian food, it was time to head over to see Roger Waters take the stage. He greeted the fervent crowd like a family friend. Despite the fact that the long-rumored Pink Floyd reunion was, in fact, just a rumor, he never failed to impress the crowd with the two-and-a-half hour set that both looked and sounded amazing, replete with pyrotechnics and a giant inflatable pig (which accidentally floated away during the show–it was found in pieces in a local neighborhood days later).


    As the set went on, we were delighted to find a low-key showing of The Wizard of Oz on a tent directly behind the bulk of the mainstage crowd, synched, of course, with the live performance of Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety.


     Over at the Sahara, Simian Mobile Disco did an excellent job of making feet and asses move in a tight space. Working the crowd into a frenzy, they stayed close to their usual set list, wowing with live favorites including “Hustler,” “It’s the Beat,” and “Sleep Deprivation.”


    Warming up the dance crowd for Coachella-enders Justice, Chromeo played to an ultra-packed tent–I am seemingly in the minority, since after about thirty seconds of the annoying “Chro-ME-OH” chanting, I booked it the hell outta there. The cheesy sax and synth faux-Prince funk just doesn’t do it for me.


    Instead, I was drawn to the energy emanating from the Mojave tent next door: Murs and special guests Living Legends hyped up the (mostly young) crowd in one of the most animated and sincere performances I saw all weekend.


    Not wanting to spend four hours sitting in traffic hell, I opted to skip out on Justice. Missing the closer might be lame, but after seeing them live several times in the last year and finding out that, by all accounts, nothing extra-special was added for Coachella (no second coming of Daft Punk), I didn’t lose any sleep over this one. 


    Coachella: Still the best and most beautiful festival in the States, hands down. Until next year–let the lineup speculation and hotel booking begin.