The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival
Friday April 25 and Saturday April 26 @ Empire Polo Fields in Indio, California
Review by Matthew Powers
Bouncing my way from the techno tents to the indie rock stages it was obvious that Coachella was different. One moment you’d hear the shredding riffs of Raconteurs the next you’d be jamming to the frenetic turntables of Aphex Twin.
But what is Coachella really different from? Everyone, including myself, has used terms like “different,” “alternative,” and “indie” to describe the event. But the enormous diversity of music makes it impossible to reduce the festival to a one-word label.
The only thing Coachella is a really an alternative to is all of the bad music in the world. If this somehow makes the event some exclusive, niche event so be it.
I got to the concert late Friday afternoon and was welcomed to the snarl of Tegan and Sara. Original, emotive, and catchy the twin sisters aren’t too cool to be palatable. The set was punctuated by the excellent “Walking with a Ghost,” replete with acoustic guitar opening, frog-in-the-mouth vocals, and choppy, insistent riffs.
Prince galvanized Coachella with his “No War” chants
The family affair continued as I jaunted over the check out the National. Made of two sets of twin brothers and singer Matt Berninger, the band’s shared the same musical template as Tegan & Sara: dissonant guitar music interrupted by tuneful choruses. And it worked. By the final song, “Abel,” the National got the crowd got relatively raucous, lightly moshing to the ferocious, barking vocals.
Still there was something missing. The music of indie rock tends to be detached and cerebral. And this carries onto their outward appearance, which is often excessively polite and emotionally distant.
This was not the case when I wandered off to the Mojave tent. The colorful theatrics of electronica band Goldfrapp boldly contrasted with inoffensiveness of the rockers. The duo got the crowd moving with their irresistible concoction of pulsating synthesizers and breathy vocals. The last song, “Strict Machine,” provided a particularly intoxicating close. Over tense synths Alison Goldfrapp electrified the crowd with her soaring, mesmerizing falsettos, providing the first transcendent moment of Coachella.
The Verve’s set closed my night. The content of their music is excellent and their return (after 10 years absence) was welcome. But the performance itself was disappointing. Richard Ashcroft’s calculated rock star swagger was unconvincing and the ethereal intimacy of psychedelic numbers like “Life’s an Ocean” were lost in the electric drone of Nick McCabe’s guitar.
Nonetheless they closed on top. The penultimate tune “Bittersweet Symphony” provided a chance for everyone to sing along. The English quartet also sparked interest with their final song, a recently written, throbbing funk-rock tune. It was a curious departure from their past and it got me excited for the future album.
It was clear from the start, while weaving my way through throngs of alterna-twentysomethings, that Saturday was going to be a busy day. The Sahara tent was packed to the max to hear the surrealistic techno of Erol Alkan and Hot Chip.
Over at the Mojave tent Animal Collective sent its audience into a frenzy with its experimental pastiche of computer beats, unorthodox time signatures, and singer Avey Tare’s volatile vocals. More of a sound collage than a collection of coherent songs, the set lacked the emotional impact of keyboardist Panda Bear’s solo work. Nonetheless the experience was as engaging as it was weird and it provided one of the most energetic shows of the day.
This was in contrast to shows at the main and outdoor stages. Death Cab for Cutie and Rilo Kiley played well-meaning sets that were as harmless as their discography. Death Cab’s Ben Gibbard’s wistful lyrics came across as more cloying than poetic while Rilo Kiley’s classic rock-inspired set left me wondering why they have so much indie cred.
But their underwhelming performances merely made sense in the context of the night’s narrative. The good stuff was waiting just ahead.
The good stuff on the main stage started with Kraftwerk. The pioneers of laptop pop played a solid, occasionally hypnotic, set of classics. Songs like “Trans-Europe Express,” “Computer Love,” and “The Robots” encapsulated their ironic subversion of alienation and conformity in the modern world. This was buttressed by background slideshow of everyday life: automobiles, innocent family life, and the band’s home German landscape.
They dressed the part too. Wearing one-piece uniforms, the band looked like a collection of nuclear engineers. And it was no accident. One of the final songs, “Radioactivity,” was a warning against the titular subject, complete with a scroll in the background denoting a list of nuclear disasters.
Building on Kraftwerk’s minimalist rhythms was fellow sub-headliner Portishead. A quintessential studio band, Portishead was able to effortlessly simulate the compressed precision of their first two albums. Singer Beth Gibbons’ aching vocals were particularly atmospheric on the poignant “Wandering Star.” The crystalline notes and gentle trajectory of the tune ascended deep into the warm desert air and seemed to hang there forever.
Like Friday, though, there was still something missing. Most performances were only 40 minutes long, which made it difficult to get immersed in any single artist. And it felt like most bands weren’t comfortable with the festival environment. Showmanship and spontaneity were virtually non-existent on the main stages.
This all changed with the final act of the night. “From now on this is Prince’s house!” the pop icon shouted as he arrived on the stage. Prince opened with a lengthy instrumental jam and followed with a series of classics: “Little Red Corvette,” “1999,” “Cream.”
There were plenty of surprises too. Members of Prince’s classic back-up bands like The Revolution and The Time were more than just complementary musicians. They sang lead, provided very long drum solos, and even took over completely when the artist left the stage for a few moments. Prince also provided an innovative version of Radiohead’s “Creep,” alternating from chill-out electronics to a violent, guitar-drenched chorus.
The cover songs, improvisations, and general musical indulgence did get a little old. But this was completely made up by Prince’s unrestrained personality. Dressed in a jewel-covered white outfit the headliner dazzled his massive audience with an unmatched flamboyance and an aggressive incorporation of audience participation. His guitar playing was stellar too, full of astonishing, Hendrix-like solos.
Prince ended his set proper with an extended rendition of The Beatles “Come Together.” Treating it as more than an old hippie anthem, Prince galvanized Coachella with his “No War” chants and announced that a new “golden age” is on the horizon. And when he said it, you really believed it.