Everyone knows that sometimes the best way to appreciate where you live is to get away for a little while. It is also true that sometimes the best way for a music critic to reboot his love of music is to attend an awesome music festival without an impending review deadline hanging over his head. This past weekend I did both when I attended the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, California.
This was my third Coachella (2004, 2007*, 2010) and I think it is without a doubt the best music festival in the United States. After a three-legged, 12-hour journey by plane, I made my way into the California desert to enjoy some of the best music on the planet for three days. The weather was beautiful, the music was excellent, and I got the re-charge I was looking for. I decided to write mini-reviews of the bands I caught and to post them here for those who follow my music writing. Keep in mind, I was focused on enjoying the music this weekend without my reviewer’s hat on. So these little reviews are more personal and less detailed write-ups of the bands I saw over this great weekend.
Baroness– They started my Coachella weekend off with a proper rocker of a set featuring their grinding rhythms, howled vocals, and an impromptu jam to cover a mid-set amp swap.
Sleigh Bells – I caught the first few songs of this electro-clash boy/girl duo. Alexis Krauss lives up to all the hype; she performs like a mad-woman.
Proxy – I had to catch the big U.S. stage debut of Russian electronica act, Proxy. Everything I had read pre-Coachella indicated to me that this would be a special set and it far exceeded my expectations. It was the best new electronica set I have seen since the U.S. debut of Justice at Coachella ’07. Proxy is the man and we danced like crazy to his maniacal electro creations.
Aeroplane – I caught the beginning of Aeroplane’s set. They brought a cool dance vibe that down-shifted gears from Proxy’s dance-chaos while keeping the bodies moving.
The Dillinger Escape Plan – I watched most of DEP’s set. They impressed on many levels as they laid waste to the Gobi stage with their furious vocals, energetic stage antics, power-house guitar playing, and schizophrenic tempo change-ups.
The Specials – There was no way I was going to miss the reunion of these Two-Tone legends. Their set was nothing but class as they treated the crowd to their musical tales of hooligan youth and racial unity. Personal highlights for me were hearing them open with “Do the Dog” (which I never imagined them playing at this show), skanking during “Nite Klub” at the edge of the huge skank pit that appeared mid-set, and watching this salt-n-pepper unit trade verses on “Doesn’t Make It Alright”.
Gil-Scott Heron – I caught the end of Gil-Scott Heron’s set just in time to hear ‘Celebrate’ with an extended jam ending. It was pretty amazing to hear this raspy-voiced legend instructing us all to “enjoy your weekend and cel-a-brate, cel-a-brate, cel-a-brate.”
La Roux – It wasn’t difficult to follow Gil-Scott’s advice during La Roux’s near-legendary set. The crowd was ridiculously huge for La Roux’s set on the festival’s smallest stage. I think everyone (including the organizers) was surprised by her rampant popularity. Somehow I ended up in the perfect spot just in front of the soundboard to watch her belt out confident yet catchy vocals while her band generated New Wave revival tunes that sounded incredible in the tiny Gobi tent. I feel bad for the thousand’s of people stuck outside.
Little Dragon – I opted to keep my perfect Gobi stage spot to check out Little Dragon over going to watch LCD Soundsystem on the main stage. I am very glad I did because it provided me with one of the highlights of my weekend. After Gil-Scott Heron’s jazzy jams, and La Roux’s 80’s gone aughts, Little Dragon transformed the Gobi stage into their own personal phantom zone with their odd brand of Swedish electro-cabaret. Their already-great tunes became infinitely more danceable in a live setting as their awesome keyboardist, drummer, and bassist played live remixes and extended versions. Yukimi Nagano is a cute, bizarre, soulful front woman that practically led the crowd by hand through her band’s unique dance music while crooning with an great vocal style that mixed bad-ass with heart-break.
Public Image Ltd. – I only did a two song preview of the return of the biggest post-punk band of all-time. PIL sounded very tight as they opened with a very loud, extended version of “This Is Not A Love Song”. John Lydon’s voice alone almost got me to stay for the whole set. His voice absolutely floored me. Much like fellow freak-of-nature Jello Biafra, Lydon’s voice is as distinct today as it was thirty years ago. This little preview totally erased any doubts that recent TV clips created about the quality of PIL’s current tour. They sound amazing and I cannot wait to see them at the 9:30 Club next month.
The Whitest Boy Alive – As hard as it was to do, I skipped the rest of PIL’s set because I have tickets for their show in DC and they were playing against The Whitest Boy Alive. My wife and I have been waiting for this band to come to America since 2003 and their Coachella set was one of the three most anticipated sets of the weekend for me. We caught their first official concert at the Festival Internacional de Benicassim in Spain that year and were completely mesmerized by Erlend Oye’s dance-party alter-ego. I don’t know why it has taken so long for them to make it to the U.S. but I am so glad that they finally did. Erlend Oye brings his Kings of Convenience quiet and applies it to a funky-jam band that just should not work but somehow miraculously does. The crowd was out of control during this dance-geek explosion. While never raising his voice above a dulcet whisper, Oye got the crowd chanting along, dancing, waving their arms, clapping in unison, hooting, and hollering. Their large-scale U.S. debut was a raging success that shared the magic my wife and I felt in Spain with a crowd of thousands. For the anxiously anticipating it was a moment of bliss and for the unknowing I am sure it was a moment of conversion. The Whitest Boy Alive put a smile on every face the eye could see.
Porcupine Tree – The sound during this outdoor stage set was incredibly precise, which fit Porcupine Tree’s epic guitar orchestrations perfectly. Their set had just the right level of rhythm and muscle to keep the early-afternoon crowd coolly nodding along while roasting under the desert sun.
Girls – San Fransisco area buzz-band Girls announced that Coachella was their largest show yet and you could tell by their set’s lack of showmanship. I really dig Girls’ album and the way it combines fuzzed-out guitars and wounded, confidence-lacking vocals but live their songs left me feeling a little flat. It didn’t help that their attempt at a mid-set noise freak-out nearly blew the sound-system and felt totally out-of-place with the rest of their set. I was going to blame their lack of pizazz on the sound-system but the next two bands to play the same stage owned it.
Band of Skulls – This British rock trio brought the dark, cool vibe to Saturday afternoon as well as an invasion of pot-smokers. It was at times difficult to see the band through all of the smoke! The highlights of Band of Skulls set were Russell Marsden’s terrific guitar riffs and every time Emma Richardson opened her mouth to sing (which didn’t take lead nearly enough). The two combined for a really good time, even better after they played their single and all the poser pot-heads cleared out. Pity for them because that is when Band of Skulls kicked their set up to another level and provided one of the strongest finishes of the day.
The Raveonettes – “The Icelandic Volcano is not our best friend right now,” is how The Raveonettes’ Sune Rose Wagner introduced their set. He went on to explain that their band was stranded in Europe and only he and partner, Sharin Foo were stateside. So they decided to play as a duo rather than cancel as so many other bands had done. Only The Raveonettes could turn adversity into triumph as they did on Saturday afternoon. Modifying their songs brilliantly, the two played sans percussion except for the few times when Sharin Foo put down her bass to drum while singing. Utilizing one drum, a cymbal, a guitar and a bass the two took turns on instruments and vocals (often cutely sharing the same microphone) to treat the crowd to a romantic, dance-able, shoegazer-epic set of tunes. This performance was incredible, one of the very best of the festival, and not enough people were there to do it proper justice. It was the stuff of festival legend and I haven’t seen any press talking about it at all. I have seen The Raveonettes so many times over the years I went into this set with a “been there, done that” attitude and walked out completely smitten all over again.
Coheed & Cambira – I caught the end of their main-stage set to position myself for Faith No More and Muse. I don’t listen to C&C and more often than not they are the butt of jokes among some of my friends. However, I have to give them props for the most rock-epic moment of the festival. For their finale performance of “Welcome Home” C&C were joined by the University of Southern California marching band on stage and they combined to play a mighty rendition in the mid-90’s style of Metallica or Aerosmith accompanied by orchestras. It was cheesy and awesome and I am glad I was there to experience it first-hand.
Faith No More – This was the second of my three most anticipated sets of the festival (they were my first concert!) and it delivered on every level. Musically awesome, creatively twisted, and entertaining as hell. The band sounded tight as they tore through some of the best off “The Real Thing”, “Angel Dust”, and “Fool For a Day…”. Mike Patton’s vocal performance was equal parts brutal and beautiful, inspiring and deranged. He played the crowd like an instrument, toying with our expectations, swaying from crooning to screaming, taunting the crowd while at the same time putting on a show of shows for those of us waiting years for this reunion. The best moments for me were their cover of Michael Jackson’s “Ben” (yes the rat love song), a vicious version of “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies”, and a surprise semi-nude Danny DeVito streaking during “Just a Man”. My only complaint is that the organizers only scheduled Faith No More for 55 minutes.
Muse – At this point I don’t think I need to explain how great Muse are live. Six years ago Muse made their large-scale U.S. debut on the Coachella main stage and on Saturday they returned to it as the headliners. I saw their 2004 Coachella set and it was a breath-taking statement by a band destined for greatness. I am sure the current tour and this weekend’s Coachella set will be remembered as important steps in their bid for rock immortality. Sans their tour’s crazy skyscraper sets, the band tore through a variation of their current set-list, to provide a show so spectacular that it was impossible to resist being entertained. Flawless versions of all the Muse anthems were on display. Bellmay seemed to be having fun with every song, mixing up his solos and taking advantage of the main-stage’s forensic sound system by plinking and tweaking his guitar strings for all kinds of weird little flourishes. At one point Bellamy laid down an inspired electric guitar instrumental of the National Anthem. This was by far the most crowd-pleasing set I witnessed over the weekend. The crowd loved it, the band seemed to love it, I loved it. Even with a full headliner spot of an hour and a half we all could have watched them play for another two.
The Dead Weather – I only got to watch a few songs by Jack White’s current super-group because of the mammoth crowd blocking their smaller stage. Their first album is on constant rotation on my Ipod lately. I find the group’s darker edge infinitely more appealing than his other projects. The songs sounded great live and it was obvious from the constant rotation of vocal duties and instruments that everyone involved (especially Kills vocalist Alison Moshart) are musical bad-asses.
Devo – My pick for best set in DC of 2009 closed out Saturday night with a ferociously fun geek dance-party on one of the larger tent-stages. A huge crowd turned out to watch Devo unveil their much advertised “new look for the new millennium” and to hear songs from their forth-coming new album played live. The new songs were great returns to form that erase the memory of the previous & embarrassing Devo revival attempt of the early 1990’s. It was obvious from watching their full-album shows last year and the Coachella set that the band is reinvigorated creatively. They treated us to several new tracks then dove into their back-catalog, leaning heavily on “Q:Are We Not Men? A:We Are Devo!” The crowd responded well to the new material and then went nuts for the classics. I drove back to my hotel humming “Mongoloid” which I was thrilled and surprised to hear performed at such a large-scale venue.
Deerhunter – The best compliment I can think to give Deerhunter’s excellent set is that it convinced me that I need to learn more about this wonderful band. I listened to “Microcastles” and “Cryptograms” maybe twice each when they came out. I ignored the indie-web hype and skipped their DC club dates. Now I regret it. Deerhunter put on a terrific show on Sunday on the smaller outdoor stage. Their Sonic Youth inspired sound was a wonderful feedback-filled yet pop-tinged ramp-up for the great day of music ahead of me.
Sunny Day Real Estate – My partner in crime, Chris Diamond, convinced me through our DPD Project that I needed to stop blaming Sunny Day Real Estate for founding Emo and actually give their music a chance. Since then I have been slowly learning to appreciate their at-times over-emotional approach to rock music. After seeing them play live on Sunday I am a full-fledged convert. I don’t know what old prejudice I was subconsciously holding onto all these years, but it melted away as Sunny Day Real Estate unloaded a short, concise set of perfect 90’s indie-rock. Live I felt they were akin to my favorites of that period, Jawbox. The modest-sized crowd seemed to genuinely love Sunny Day and the band seemed genuinely surprised by how many people were there and/or singing along. They even commented on how surprised they were by the turn-out. Of any set over the weekend I think Sunny Day Real Estate fed the most off of their crowd’s energy. Their set just kept building with each song, becoming more huge sounding, until it was an epic, emotional, angst-filled, rock out. This was the Coachella indie reunion that should have received all the press instead of dull-as-paint-drying Pavement.
Jonsi – The lead singer of Sigur Ros has crafted an excellent solo-debut album that utilizes his bizarre and amazing voice in alternate-universe pop-songs and sweeping epics. His set at Coachella featured just about every song on his new album and left just about everyone that witnessed its performance completely dumb-struck by how…no word does it justice. Suffice to say Jonsi’s voice live is one of the current wonders of the world and his drummer is a madman that orchestrated so much percussive chaos that it was at times hard to follow him. I would say that this was one of the best sets of the weekend but it was so other-worldly that I don’t even know if it took place in the same time-space continuum as the rest of the festival.
Miike Snow – The most disappointing thing I saw at the festival was Miike Snow. I was looking forward to this set but was horribly disappointed. The sound was just awful and I don’t blame the sound-crew. Judging from the way they were performing it, I think the band intended their live set to sound the way it did, as if they were trying to create some kind cool effect and it horribly back-fired. I left during the third song. I heard someone later saying how amazing the Miike Snow set was and I asked him if we had listened to the same set.
Infected Mushroom – I wandered into the infamous Sahara Techno tent out of the Miike Snow debacle to catch these Isreali, dance music populists moving the crowd with their maximum BPM, generic brand techno. It wasn’t the most creative thing I’ve ever seen but I have to admit I gave into the call of their rhythm. What else was I going to do, stand there and pout?
Orbital – The third of my highly anticipated sets of the weekend was the return of the band responsible for my personal dance music awakening at Ravestock ’94. To say I was excited about seeing Orbital’s return to the decks and keys is an understatement. I have been babbling about this set for months in advance, listening to their discography on near-constant repeat, and generally acting like a little girl who already knows her daddy bought her a pony for her birthday. Orbital’s set this Sunday was one of the all-time greatest dance music experiences I have ever had. It ranks right up there with 808 State in Spain, Underworld in the downpour at Giants Stadium, and the original Ravestock that featured Dee-Lite, Orbital, and The Orb. The brothers Hartnoll brought the house with a condensed rave-up for their criminally short-scheduled 50 minute set. They transitioned seamlessly from track to track for a non-stop, high-energy dance odyssey. The crowd was full of older first-gen ravers (like myself) and curious kids who partied side-by-side like it was the last dance-party on earth. Everyone totally in the moment, going bug-nuts dance-floor insane. This was highlighted by the fan organized “Glowruption aka glORBITAL”; a brilliant plan to smuggle thousands of glow-sticks into the festival and launch them via sheet-pulled-parachute-style into the crowd the minute the opening sample of “Satan” ended and the music kicked in. “Glowruption aka glORBITAL” got a glow-stick (or 2 or 10) into everyone’s hands and took the party to a ridiculous raver nirvana for the rest of Orbital’s brilliant, brilliant set.
Plastikman – I skipped Thom Yorke to watch the unveiling of Richie Hawtin’s much-hyped Plastikman set. It was supposed to be a new frontier in the melding of sound and visuals in a live setting. The curtain dropped to reveal his DJ booth hidden inside a massive cylinder. The minimal techno pulse kicked in and the outside of the cylinder came to life with pulsing colors and swirling patterns. I assume the shifts in the visual pattern were triggered by what Hawtin did musically, but really it could have just been good timing like a traditional techno slide-show. There was no way to know for sure and that question mark dulled the wow-factor of what I was watching. Added to which, Plastikman’s minimal techno, while excellent, paled in comparison to Orbital’s masterful performance just prior. I put this down to bad-scheduling and if I got the chance to see Plastikman do the same set-up in a club I would be there in a New York minute.
Gorillaz – The big question-mark of the festival is what The Gorillaz set was going to be like. Traditionally performing behind cartoons or holograms and performing rarely at that, created an air of mystery around the whole thing. The new album Plastic Beach is a stylistic collision and a minor masterpiece for Blur front man and musical maverick Damon Albarn (who is the Gorillaz mastermind). I was looking forward to hearing the new album performed live with some of the older tunes thrown in. But I was not really looking-forward to watching projected cartoons pretending to play music while a real band hid behind a screen. So much to my delight (and many, many others’ chagrin) Gorillaz decided to come out from behind their screen at Coachella and perform as a proper band. Even more to my pleasure the current line-up featured two of my all-time rock heroes, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon of The Clash. Seeing those two performing on-stage together would have got me on an airplane regardless of what else was going on. I nearly cried when Simonon took his cordless bass across the stage and jammed out with his old band-mate. It was a lifetime, live-music, high point for me. Albarn led the band which also included a string section, a 4-person choir, a drummer, two keyboardists, and a traditional Turkish instrument ensemble like he was part mad-man, part ring-leader. De La Soul, Bobby Womack, and Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano all provided guest vocals. Albarn’s voice sounded spot on as he sang just about every dreamy or melancholy number from the Gorillaz discography. I think the majority of the crowd felt a little disappointed by the lack of performing cartoons, but I thought the set was a classy and brilliant once-in-a-lifetime performance. It was like watching a complex hip-hop, rock musical. There were definitely party numbers peppered through-out the set but the over-all feel of the set was a bit contemplative and wistful. I felt it was the perfect come-down for a weekend stuffed to the gills with incredible music.