After experiencing the surrealism that is Coachella for the first time two years ago, I was finally returning, this time with some newbies along for the ride. We left for the desert late Thursday night so we could get an early start Friday morning. At first, some time was spent meandering around the fields, checking out some of the art installations and enjoying the general lack of crowds. It was funny seeing the handful of people already camping out at the main stage for Morrissey and McCartney. (As popular as the latter is, the former surely has more obsessive fans today.)
We next walked down to the Sahara tent to see what Switch, the first act of the day, was all about. It was pretty standard electronica/dance with a considerably sizable crowd given the timeslot. After some energy food, I wanted to check out this recently added Mexican band El Gran Silencio; they turned out to be one of the day's biggest surprises, turning the packed Gobi tent into a real party with their mixture of alt rock, traditional Mexican sounds, and a little reggaeton. We caught the last two songs of their set and then it was off to the Outdoor Theater to catch Alberta Cross based on a recommendation. I was informed they played bluesy southern rock but what I heard was much more subdued. After relaxing on the grass for a few numbers we headed back to the Mojave tent for the Aggrolites, the first act of the day that I'd actually heard of before. Though I was familiar with none of their music I expected a rousing dose of punk-infused reggae and ska. Turns out there's not much of the Epitaph/Hellcat crunch to their sound -- which was actually a good thing, since I didn't want to feel like I was at the Warped Tour. Instead there was a lot of energy, reggae and...organ playing. El Gran Silencio set the bar pretty high, but these guys also got the crowd going pretty well. It was another reminder of why I love Coachella -- tens (hundreds?) of thousands of people, of all varieties, converging in the desert in the name of music. Nothing else matters.
I prefer to treat Coachella like a buffet, if you haven't noticed. I'd rather have small portions of a lot, than a few full servings; blame it on my short attention span. After the Aggrolites I wanted to catch at least a glimpse of rockers We Are Scientists (whose 2007 appearance was canceled) over on the main "Coachella" stage. I was able to catch one or two numbers and I heard a few more while we browsed some art like the Hand of Man -- a giant robotic hand controlled via glove, used to pick up cars and throw up the horns. Basically the Coachella icon of badassery. (I kept waiting to see a giant middle finger extended from across the polo fields, but no such luck.) Before long we went back to the Mojave for current buzz band Cage the Elephant. They jammed on some solid rock and roll before playing their bluesy breakthrough hit "Ain't No Rest for the Wicked" about halfway through (thankfully not saving it for the very end as lesser bands would do). We then walked next door for a taste of Steve Aoki, mainly because he's a friend of a friend. I was surprised to see the Sahara overflowing in the afternoon -- then again, he does have a large L.A. following. For a DJ set, what I saw was pretty over the top. I walked in to see him shirtless on an elevated platform running back and forth screaming at the audience to get pumped up. Well, dude knows how to work a crowd. I started wondering if he had his own DJs to actually spin records for him, but eventually he went back to his turntables to segue between songs. Then, as quickly as he stopped, he was back at it again. It was definitely entertaining.
Molotov was now on at the Outdoor Theater. They were another Mexican band, out of several all weekend -- what the hell, was that Coachella's recession solution? Anyway, I've heard about their brand of rather crass Chili Peppers / Rage Against the Machine-style rock for years, though I didn't hear any of it until "Puto" came on in a student bar in Germany, 2006...and now I've seen them. I award them the honor of Classiest Coachella Moment for a particular song in which they kept shouting "Fuck your mother" in Spanish. That's one thing about the two Latino bands -- from what I saw at least, neither made any attempt to communicate in the native language of the mostly English speaking audience! They delivered their stage banter like it was a regular hometown show. I don't care, it's their gig -- I just found it amusing considering much of the hog-wild audience probably didn't understand a word they were saying. Next door on the main stage was another hot commodity of the moment, the indie group Airborne Toxic Event. I wasn't able to see much of them but I was content with no more than a glimpse anyway. I did catch them stop and restart a song though. We didn't quite make it back to the Mojave to catch the start of the Hold Steady's set -- but that's okay. They sure were rockin', though. Once they played "The Swish" -- beautifully done, in all its AC/DC-meets-Pitchfork glory -- it was time to see what M. Ward was all about.
The only reason for this was that the singer of the band I'm currently playing with really likes him...so I figured why the hell not. When we arrived at the Outdoor Theater he announced he was soundchecking, but his transition into his first song was unclear so I wasn't sure where the soundcheck ended and the performance began. In any case, his first couple numbers were somber, country-inflected and folky. He brought out a special guest whose name I wasn't able to make out apart from "David." Then all of a sudden, drums kicked in and a comparatively upbeat, full-band tune came to life. The contrast from the first couple songs was so great it sounded like a different band. Overall, it was a nice soundtrack for sitting down in the grass, catching our breath. The mad dashing was done, for now. We soon meandered over towards the main stage and nearby food court; I wanted to catch the Black Keys while the rest of my party was understandably tired and hungry. This is why a lot of people choose to go alone or split off from their group, and part of what makes Coachella a near-spiritual experience for many. It's just you and the music. Anyway, I sat with the rest under the shade while the Keys' fuzzy two-man blues rock droned in the distance. Eventually I ventured closer to the stage and caught the rollicking end of their set. I wish I was a little closer; it probably would have sounded a lot more powerful. Normally I'm a fan of "big" shows, but given the sparse nature of this band (only a drummer and a guitarist, I believe), they probably would have benefited from a more intimate setting. In a perfect world I would have managed to see more of the Keys but there's only so much you can cram into a single day.
The rest of the group joined me near the main stage to snag a good, shady spot for Franz Ferdinand. The restrooms were located conveniently by the Outdoor Theater so I was able to catch a moment of the infamous Conor Oberst with his Mystic Valley Band. After hearing so much by and about the man behind Bright Eyes, it was practically like seeing a legend in the flesh. (I'm no diehard fan, mind you.) From what I briefly saw it appeared to be a pretty enjoyable country/folk rock blend (and entirely different from the aforementioned M. Ward) with the added benefit of the sunset slot, making for a rather magical desert experience. If I wasn't set for Franz I probably would have stuck around a little longer.
Franz Ferdinand was one of my more anticipated bands of the day and one of the reasons I opted for Friday; I wanted some upbeat indie rock in the early evening, and unfortunately neither Fleet Foxes nor Band of Horses really provided that for me on Saturday. (Luckily, I didn't go -- while I did want to see the Killers, I was hoping for a surprise mega-add Ã¡ la Prince that never actually materialized.) Anyways, before long, Franz was out and rockin' as the sky slowly darkened. They definitely had people moving, even in our vicinity, which wasn't that close to the stage. An early highlight was "Dark of the Matinee" during which I found myself singing along. "Take Me Out," indisputably their biggest hit, was slipped in the middle of the set, which was nice; I hate when bands save the song everyone wants to hear until the very end. It's like holding the audience hostage, especially those who honestly just want to hear that song (which, for a festival with lots of overlapping performances, is entirely understandable). Furthermore, saving the "big hit" for last is like saying, "We don't think any of our other material is good enough to follow that song." Not exactly a vote of confidence. Luckily, neither Franz nor Cage the Elephant nor Crowded House from two years ago with "Don't Dream It's Over," were guilty of this. This reminds me of my stance on encores -- I'm generally not a fan. They were originally spontaneous, a reaction to overwhelming audience demand, and often resulted in the performance of an obscure number or cover since the bulk of material was already covered in the main set. Now an encore is expected (if not multiple for bigger acts), whether the performance merits one or not, and artists often save their big(gest) hits for *after* the main set. For rock and roll, at least, this is unacceptable -- not to mention presumptuous. Anyway, back to Franz Ferdinand. It wasn't everything I hoped for and more -- a heavy electro number from the new album was absent -- but it was fun and entertaining, and they closed on a high note with "This Fire."
We walked back to the "lobby" to retrieve some jackets from our locker. The Dome was back this year -- think of a hollowed-out globe from EPCOT Center housing an endless dance party. I was hoping to catch it heating up en route to or from the lockers, but apparently the start was delayed. This year the Dome kept going for campers until the wee hours of the morning, so I was able to catch a glimpse at the end of the night, but it paled in comparison to 2007. That year the Dome was centrally located in the midst of all the action (instead of all by itself near the entrance), the Dome itself was more colorful, and it started way earlier, before sunset at least. It had a much better vibe then; oh well.
It was time to catch the venerable singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, a performance hyped by music critics and enthusiasts since the lineup's release. I was only familiar with his song "Hallelujah," famously covered by `90s icon Jeff Buckley, whose version was later covered in turn by American Idol contestant Jason Castro (the dude with the dreads from a couple seasons ago). I was near positive it'd show up somewhere in his set, having checked a few recent set lists (sometimes well-established artists can't stand playing some of their hits anymore, so I had to check). We caught a good chunk of his set -- he had a huge crowd in front of the Outdoor Theater, extending far beyond any practical audience boundaries. The performer, in his mid-70s, was decked out in rather fancy and sophisticated attire and he had a full band complete with backup singers -- far from my initial, naive "singer-songwriter" expectations of Cohen solo with acoustic in hand. His performance was far more engaging than I first anticipated seeing his name on the lineup. Cohen's deep, eerie voice and his storytelling style have a way of drawing you into a trance-like state. When "Hallelujah" finally came, it truly was glorious. Witnessing, and being part of, the massive sea of people softly singing each refrain like an otherworldly church choir...well, you had to experience it to truly understand. It vies with one or two other moments as the highlight of my Coachella `09 experience. The feeling of community, through the music, was unreal. I have no doubt it will go down as a special moment in Coachella history.
With a couple songs left in Cohen's set I hurried over next door to the Main Stage so I could catch the start of Morrissey. I mainly wanted to hear "How Soon Is Now" and any other Smiths tunes (particularly "There Is a Light...", sadly not on any of his recent set lists). When I heard the opening to "This Charming Man" on my way over, I'll admit I started running since it's another Smiths favorite of mine. That was nice, but I didn't stick around for long. After a few less-than-stellar solo songs that I wasn't familiar with, Morrissey uttered the now infamous line: "I can smell burning flesh...and I hope to God it's human." Well, that was awkward. See, he's vegan and was apparently offended by all the burgers and hot dogs cooking on the festival grounds. But his statement came off condescending and self-absorbed. After another song or two and still no "How Soon Is Now," I left somewhat disappointed -- less due to that song's absence (it was his closing number) and more because I expected a better performance from such a revered artist. Apparently that was the general consensus, since most reviews I've skimmed gave Morrissey's second Coachella appearance a thumbs down.
It was time to make a brief appearance at the Girl Talk party on the opposite end of the Polo Fields. I took in a brief moment of his set two years ago and I thought that was pretty wild, with hard-partying festivalgoers spilling onto the stage alongside the DJ. This year he was upgraded to the Sahara Tent; I was lucky to get inside due to the throngs of curious people piling up on the edges. As I arrived he was just starting. He came out like a king to thousands hootin' and hollerin' along with a large squad of "dancers," for lack of a better term. He might as well have been carried out with a procession. Before long his trademark style of mashing up everything, from Jay-Z to Kansas, was rocking the whole tent. The Sahara certainly is a great place to party with its overabundance of lasers, fog and other visual and sensory effects. I like my Sahara more electronica than hip-hop, though, so we ditched after getting our groove on for a few minutes.
Back to the Outdoor Theater -- it was for a little Silversun Pickups. They were also on the 2007 lineup but I failed to catch much, if any, of them due to my lack of familiarity with them at the time. Since then I've become rather fond of their indie-Smashing Pumpkins sound. Due to exhaustion we sat in the field, and not exactly close to the action; a second set of speakers for the proverbial "nosebleeds" ensured we could still hear. Since we were only able to catch a portion of their set we missed "Lazy Eye" (anyone get a heavy "1979" vibe from this?) but caught "Future Foe Scenarios," another favorite of mine. Sadly, there was no "Well Thought Out Twinkles" either. I gotta say this was one of the more disappointing portions of the day, thanks to a combination of exhaustion, distance from the stage and a poor time slot amidst a frenetic schedule for a band that simply didn't perform with the same energy present on their records.
The home stretch that followed was a rollercoaster of intense decision making. A little back story: Before McCartney was part of the picture, the Presets -- an Australian electronic act I've come to really, really like -- were heavily rumored to perform sometime during the weekend, due in part to convenient tour dates surrounding Coachella weekend. Their confirmed Friday appearance was a major reason I chose to attend this day; having the grandfather of pop music as the headliner (whose contested relevance to Coachella I'll talk about soon) ensured Friday would be a stellar day for music fans. I was also excited to see legendary electronica act, the Crystal Method. Well, imagine my discontent (to put it lightly) when I discovered days before the festival that Goldenvoice (the promoters behind Coachella) scheduled the Crystal Method and, most importantly, the Presets in DIRECT CONFLICT with the mother of 'em all, Sir Paul himself!! I soon found I was not alone; scores of angry, despondent posters on the Coachella forums demanded a Presets schedule change. They soon settled into three camps -- those who considered McCartney not-to-be-missed, those who could care less about the former Beatle, and those who wanted to make both. I fell into the final group, of course. Most of this persuasion planned to catch the Presets and return for McCartney's second hour -- historically more Beatles-laden than the first. I actually like some of his solo work, however...would I miss "Jet," "Live or Let Die" or any early Beatles numbers in the first hour? My final plan was to catch the opening of McCartney's set, run all the way to the Presets in hopes of hearing my personal favorite "This Boy's in Love," leave after a handful of songs regardless, and return for the remainder of McCartney. It seemed feasible, and I even temporarily convinced a couple people in my party to join me. The Crystal Method didn't fare as well; at best I hoped they would still be going after McCartney -- partly to entertain the many drug-addled types, partly to stagger the flow of exiting traffic. No matter which way you looked at, as a music fan this was not a pleasant situation.
Back to the present... Even after taking a breather for Silversun Pickups, I still felt extremely worn out on my way to the Main Stage. Around this time I finally embraced a realization that had been slowly dawning on me all day: Trying to catch both the Presets and McCartney was a terrible idea. Everyone was just too exhausted; perhaps if I came alone I might have convinced myself to stay the course. As hard as it was to stand up the Presets, ultimately I didn't want to miss anything special from one of modern music's founding fathers, especially in this rare festival setting. It was actually relieving to make that decision...now I was able to get comfortable in anticipation of Coachella's most epic headliner to date, Paul McCartney.
Coachella's gotten some flack in the past few years for taking steps towards becoming "Oldchella," as some suggest. Since its inception the festival has been critically acclaimed for its youthful, alternative and cutting edge vibe. Naturally the placement of "veteran" acts like Madonna (2005), Willie Nelson (2007), Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and Prince (2008), and of course McCartney, has drawn criticism for deviating from its successful formula. My brief takes: Madonna has always maintained a devil-may-care forward-thinking attitude; she's no dinosaur. Willie Nelson is like a punk in country music clothing, part of the "outlaw" subgenre and usually going against the grain of mainstream country. Pink Floyd does sound a little prehistoric, but I've heard Radiohead described as their heirs, and their psychedelic trippiness laid the framework for tons of drugged-out indie and alternative bands today. And Prince is just eternally cool. As for Sir Paul, well...there's no doubt he's old. But he was also one of the two principal songwriters and a member of the most important musical group of the last 50 years. The Beatles wrote the Bible for modern popular music; the majority of stuff out there today is indebted to Lennon-McCartney one way or another. This is particularly true for Coachella-caliber artists, from mellow indie pop to high-energy post-punk and beyond. And while particular trends come and go, great songwriting will never be out of style. McCartney is just that -- a great songwriter. The great songwriter, perhaps. I believe Paul Tollet, president of Goldenvoice, has said that he is not sentimental, but dammit -- I am. What more appropriate headliner is there, to celebrate a decade of what many have called this generation's Woodstock, than the very figure whom without many of today's beloved acts would arguably not even exist?
When he came out after a while of waiting, we were treated to a gigantic full body view courtesy of the two biggest video screens I may have ever seen. It was awesome. Without much delay Paul and his band jumped right into "Jet." Dude's looking old for sure (video screens weren't kind in that respect) -- but I was surprised how hard he can still rock out. The drummer was great -- throughout the night he sang backup and even threw in a few double kick rolls -- but his rather bulky size and Latino ethnicity stood out from the mostly white, Anglo-Saxon band. I got a kick out of that for some reason. Paul constantly switched between his classic bass and electric guitars, showing off his lead guitar skills in the process. At one point the band gave a nod to Hendrix with an all-too-short instrumental jam on "Purple Haze." I must say his between-song banter bordered on awkward, especially at first -- the way he pronounced "Koo-a-CHELL-a" and the way he generally acted like an old guy trying to be hip. (Reminds me of this cheesy quote from him, reprinted in probably hundreds of articles: "I have heard that Coachella is one of the greatest festivals in the world. I'm really excited to get out there and rock!")
Part of the reason I didn't want to miss a second of McCartney's set was due to silly rumors of guests like Ringo Star (thus a "living Beatles" reunion) or Dave Grohl (Ã¡ la the Grammys). I wanted to be there for any "only-at-Coachella" moments. Of course, the problem is everyone now expects these "surprise" moments, which totally defeats the purpose. I held out hope until near the show's end, when I finally accepted that my expectations were too high. In the end, though, there was something special about this night. About a third of the way in, McCartney's tone turned rather somber as he intimately told the crowd that this night was the 11th anniversary of his beloved former wife Linda's death in relatively nearby Tuscon, AZ. It was really moving; he was clearly choking back tears. I felt this was some real soul-bearing going on and not just a rehearsed act. It was widely speculated that McCartney was headlining Friday, instead of the typically climactic Sunday night, for business reasons -- namely, to boost ticket sales on what's usually the slowest selling day. Maybe so. But perhaps this date was too meaningful for Paul to pass up. After this sudden shift in tone he sat at the piano for an emotional rendition of "My Love"; Linda used to perform this song with him when they were both part of Wings. In this context the somewhat cheesy ballad transformed into a very personal and touching performance. I'll never forget hearing his voice crack mournfully once or twice during the song. This was followed by a beautiful solo acoustic rendition of "Blackbird" -- that alone was worth skipping the Presets.
Several songs were dedicated to his late friends John Lennon and George Harrison (whose wife was in attendance). "Something" started with Paul solo using a ukelele-type instrument and eventually escalated into a full-band arrangement. The sea of people singing softly "I don't know, I don't know" was unreal. Near the end of the main set, "A Day in the Life" into "Give Peace a Chance" was massively epic. These tributes, delivered in the already surreal desert night, were among the show's highlights.
The Beatles material was the main attraction here, to be sure. But Paul didn't blow it on his solo material either, which included the powerful opening punch of "Jet" and a couple surprisingly rocking cuts from his latest release under the collaborative pseudonym Fireman. "Only Mama Knows" sounded so much like a Wings classic that I forgot it was fresh off his last solo album, and "Let Me Roll It" delivered similar energy. I actually wouldn't have minded some other tunes like "Let Em In" or even "Silly Love Songs," and the lack of "Maybe I'm Amazed" left me a tiny bit sad. But it was "Live and Let Die" that took the cake for post-Beatles material. Just as I had hoped the song skyrocketed from delicate piano pop to rollicking abandon -- with the help of some truly fantastic fireworks and pyrotechnics. From a rock and roll perspective that was the clear high point of the show.
However, as I previously discussed, McCartney and the other Fab Three aren't revered so much for their hard rocking moments, but rather their mastery of pop songcraft. Sir Paul certainly didn't disappoint in this regard, sprinkling in untouchable Beatles classics from the second song on, increasing in prevalence until the final third was virtually all Lennon-McCartney. "Drive My Car"..."The Long and Winding Road"..."Blackbird"..."Back in the USSR"..."Something"..."A Day in the Life"...each one evoked glee from the audience, and we all sang along. I was kind of hoping for "Hello Goodbye," which never arrived -- but like "Maybe I'm Amazed," minor stuff in comparison to all that was crammed into this performance. As one of the Beatles' most distinctive songs, "Eleanor Rigby" garnered a lot of excitement at its outset. One of the most surprising and exciting parts of the show for me was hearing the opening riff to "Paperback Writer" -- one of my favorite Beatles rockers that I had somehow completely forgotten about! Paul & Co. tore it up, too. Paul chose to perform "Let It Be" near the end of the main set, despite that it was really John's song -- but what a wise choice that was. One of the Beatles' -- and really pop music's -- most iconic songs produced another haunting audience choir. For the main set closer McCartney pulled out the mother -- "Hey Jude." Imagining a sea of "naaa"s during this song was my main motivator for seeing him on Friday; like "Live or Let Die," the real thing was pretty much exactly what I envisioned -- probably not much more than that, though, since my expectations set the bar pretty high to begin with. It doesn't get much more epic than this, folks. Paul totally milked the "naaa"s for almost more than they were really worth -- guys only, girls only, et. al -- but who am I kidding, the experience was fun as hell.
I knew there would be at least one encore, though I didn't have a clue what he would play since my encore prediction of "Hey Jude" was now totally obsolete. Meanwhile, the rest of my party was falling asleep on me but I urged them it wasn't over yet. Sure enough, Sir Paul reemerged to play "Birthday," an already fun song made new and improved because we had a birthday in our group. This was followed by "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Lady Madonna," certainly classics but not what I'd consider clincher material. So when he left the stage after the latter I had an inkling it wasn't over yet, despite the masses beginning to herd towards the exit. The rest of my group wanted to go but I told them Paul was probably going to come out and do an acoustic "Yesterday" to top it off. That's exactly what he did, and it was perhaps the evening's final suspension of reality during which the crowd once again lost itself in the song, and little else mattered. By the end I was content, ready to bring the day to a close.
In the biggest left-field move of the night, the dissonant electric guitar from "Helter Skelter" -- one of the Beatles' hardest, heaviest songs -- started to wail and Paul began shouting the classic opening line, "When I get to the bottom I go back to the top of the slide..." I was ecstatic. Part of me forgot all about this song, and the other figured there was no way in hell Paul would attempt such a raucous rock fest. But he did, it was superb, and in a trend verging on ridiculous, the show wasn't over yet. In fact, if the show had gone on much longer than it did, even "Macca" ran the risk of overstaying his welcome. Thankfully he knew how close he could get to that point without crossing it. Following "Helter Skelter" came "Get Back," a pleasant surprise...and when it was succeeded by "Sgt. Pepper's" -- ultimately tagged with "The End" -- I knew the "house" lights would be on shortly and the mad dash for the parking lots would begin.
If McCartney's set sounded exhausting, that's because it was -- especially at the end of a rather active day. He probably could have cut a few solo numbers from the early portion of his set and again, the institution of planned encores in the industry has gotten so out of hand, I actually thought he did three encores until I consulted the set list. I'm sure if it wasn't after such a long day, though, it would have been perfect. By the end of the night I had no qualms about missing the Presets or Crystal Method. Even I was too tired to go see if the latter was still playing, which was unlikely. (I did find reports on both later and was a little bummed, but whatever -- can't have it all.) McCartney at Coachella is something that almost definitely won't happen again, so I'm glad I caught it all.
I had a blast going all three days in 2007, but I may have had more fun on this single Friday than I did on any particular day then. No matter where it ranks, my day at Coachella `09 was a blast. I forget if I touched upon the art installations, especially at night -- the giant blazing snake/dinosaur skeleton was especially impressive. Simply put, the combination of live music of all styles, coming from all directions, and large, abstract works of (often interactive) art, along with a myriad of various personalities, made for quite an unforgettable experience.
The only other thing I want to say is about Sunday night. I like the Cure, but I didn't think I'd enjoy them live. They didn't seem like a very lively headliner. Well, I caught some of the webcast that night and found myself pretty impressed. Most critics seemed to agree, describing it as an improvement over their 2004 appearance. Even better, they kept playing until Coachella basically pulled the plug on them. And then they kept playing. Crazy Cure fans crowded around the barricade singing along. There's footage online of that and the ensuing "riot." Apparently some festivalgoers didn't want to leave, so they gathered around one of the art exhibits and staged a ritualistic "COACHELLA!" chant...
What a bad ass way to end the weekend's festivities.
(Some of my predictions/hopes for next year: Wilco, MGMT, Peaches, Bloc Party, Mars Volta, Sunny Day Real Estate...At the Drive-In perhaps?)