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Coachella 2004: A Brief Look Back

Empire Polo Fields
Indio, California
05.01.04

I can’t lie to you. It just wouldn’t be right. So here is the truth, straight from the dusty Empire Polo Fields of Indio, California. Straight from the sandy horse’s mouth.

As I rubbed the day’s grit away, I realize that thine eyes did not deceive me. Wayne Coyne, white-leisure-suit-wearing captain of the U.S.S. Flaming Lips, was descending upon the frenzied crowd at the 2004 Coachella Music Festival  in a giant bubble from outer space. The desert skies opened up, the spotlights shifted left then right, and the glimmering orb suddenly appeared, coming into view just above the palm trees, pretty faces and shaggy haircuts that lined the chain-link fence of the beer garden. It will go down in festival history, a moment unmatched at Woodstock, or Altamont, or even . . .

But wait! I’ve jumped ahead to Sunday night already. There is so much more to cover: so many two-dollar bottles of water, so many twenty-dollar T-shirts and forty-dollar hoodies. Oh, and those pills I found. But again, I digress. First thing you have to know is that it was hot. But it’s a dry heat -- kind of like walking around inside a pottery kiln. The car’s thermostat tried to tell us that it was 131 degrees, but the car is a big liar. It was merely a balmy 104. And the traffic -- well, I won’t get into it, but you’d think the self-proclaimed “City of Festivals” would have things a little more together. Apparently organizers have been out in the sun too long. But we’re here to talk about music, so let’s get to it.

Day One: Backstage with a pretty young scientologist, celebrity sightings abound (May 1)

Trying to see Beck, even though his performance was totally unannounced, quickly proved to be next to impossible. Making our way from the tail end of Hieroglyphics’ thumping set through backstage areas where we didn’t belong we came upon a scene: Giovanni Ribisi pacing and talking nervously on his cell phone. Alicia Silverstone playing in the grass. And Frank Black doing basically the same thing I was trying to do -- see Beck. Friends told me he performed solo, invited some audience members up to play tambourines and such, and was an all-around good time. Apparently he’s having a kid soon, and he just happens to live up the hill from my cousin in Silverlake. She occasionally plays his records real loud just to see if he’ll come down and complain.

After a brief battle with security, we headed to the main stage to catch the International Noise Conspiracy’s set instead. Turned out to be pretty cool, at least if you’re into mike-twirling, Mick Jagger-esque socialist Swedes in matching outfits.

At this point, the main event was nearly upon us, and you could almost feel (and see) most of the crowd gathering around the main stage. It’s not every day you decide to fly to Cali on a whim for a music festival. But, the chance to actually see the Pixies live was what really got me on the plane. I had this irrational fear they they’d play a bunch of West Coast dates, head on over to Europe to cruise the festival circuit, and break-up again before they ever made it back to the Eastern seaboard. I know, I’m a lunatic. The point is, they were magnificent.

From the opening notes of “Bone Machine,” I was captivated, singing along to every song you’d expect them to play. Their music lends itself to a somewhat disjointed, disorganized live show, so I won’t go on about how tight their performance was after only a handful of shows. But if you know the Pixies, you know it doesn’t really matter. Kim Deal’s voice soared while her bass thumped, Frank Black screeched and barked behind messy black eye make-up, Joey Santiago’s guitar twirled around their voices and drummer David Lovering pounded away, keeping everything almost grounded.

Not to be outdone by their forefathers, Radiohead took the stage and rage though an equal dose of beeps, squeals, and melodies. Rumors of vocal problems for lead singer Thom Yorke were hardly founded, and Radiohead kicked out a powerful set drawing equally from their last four studio albums. Most notably they closed with a flippant rendition of their breakthrough hit, “Creep,” and it was hilariously fitting. A song that was once their sole claim to fame has become trite and nearly insignificant when stacked up against the rest of their catalog. They know it, and the audience knows it, so when Yorke quips, “I’m a weirdo -- well, we all know that’s true,” we glimpse life and a smile behind the glaring, robotic hum, and the whole thing just clicks.

Stretching the day to its limits, we headed over to catch a glimpse of Kraftwerk. You have to respect guys that have been doing this kind of stuff since way before computers were commonplace. Long before your neighbor’s bratty fourteen-year-old could be the next platinum-selling artist from behind his G5 laptop. And their live show did not disappoint: four very German gentleman in matching suits, standing sternly at their laptops, powerful images and text flashing across a giant screen behind them. Then, after a brief pull of the curtains, they were replaced with four synchronized robots. It was perfect.

Three seminal bands in one day sent me way beyond overload. I needed sleep.

Day Two: Coachella, the second day in brief (May 2)
Tim Kasher of Cursive may very well think he’s Jesus -- or at least he’s got the hair and beard to prove it. Geoff Rickley of Thursday did almost pass out from heat exhaustion, but he assured the audience, “Don’t worry, kid, I’m gonna make it through the set,” drool still dripping from his mouth. That guy from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs playing guitar with Bright Eyes: He’s not from Omaha. Weird. The Flaming Lips have by far the most entertaining live show I have ever seen. Robert Smith is looking a lot like Rosie O’Donnell these days, but The Cure still rocked -- and played “Love Cats,” which is my favorite Cure song.

Epilogue
The most important lesson I learned at Coachella: I didn’t realize people that attractive actually listened to indie rock.

The most important thing that happened at Coachella: Wayne Coyne, giant bubble from outer space. Wayne Coyne, giant bubble from outer space. Wayne Coyne, giant bubble from outer space . . .

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