Following the release of this year’s lineup for the indie music smorgasbord that is the annual Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, an audible groan began to resonate from the concert-going populace. Sure, there were enough solid acts to fill the three-day-long party in the desert-but where were the big-name headliners? The impossible-to-book overseas bands? The epic reunion that you never saw coming? In the place of rock gods Radiohead and Rage, we had Jack Johnson and Portishead. Instead of scene-makers Bright Eyes and the White Stripes, there was Flogging Molly and the lead singer from System of a Down. The downside to this booking letdown: The nearly $300 all-weekend passes were a tough expenditure to justify. The upside: Those willing and able got nearly 40 hours worth of awesome up-and-comers (Annuals, St. Vincent, Man Man), riot-inducing deejay sets (A-Trak, Simian Mobile Disco, Datarock), and just enough throwback goodness (The Verve, The Breeders, Perry Farrell, Roger Waters) to make the sweltering heat and crazy crowds worthwhile. Oh yeah, and Prince showed up too. Below is a rundown of the weekend’s highlights, surprises, show stoppers, and a couple of folks who just failed to bring the goods. And following the article is a photo gallery of the performers, art installations, and fans that filled the Empire Polo Field last weekend.
By far one of the standout showings of the weekend, Battles’ Friday afternoon electro-rock freak out set the standard high for those to follow. A tight setup, combined with lengthy, prog-tinged tunes courtesy of Ian Williams’ and leading man Tyondai Braxton’s dueling keyboards brought crowds from across the field into the tiny-by-comparison Gobi Tent. Fighting soaring temperatures and Les Savy Fav’s concurrent set at the Outdoor Theatre, the quartet still managed to draw an impressive audience of dance-ready kids-blowing fans and passersby away with the high-intensity, vocally minimal “Atlas.”
Being familiar with Deacon simply by way of his unassuming, geek-friendly fashion sense, it was hard to know what to expect when the eccentric Baltimore-bred artist began prepping for his Coachella debut. And as sound techs and stagehands began flip-flopping amps and monitors, it quickly became evident what was in store-an interactive electronic adventure done undeniably on his terms. Armed with a small collection of hyper-colored instrumentation, Deacon set up shop in the pit beneath the Gobi stage. From there, he proceeded to warm up the audience with a series of awkwardly hilarious callisthenic exercises that had the near-full tent kneeling, pointing, and chanting about the underappreciated awesomeness of the third Matrix. Following the stretch fest, the crowd gleefully rocked out to a series of bizarre tunes, including “The Crystal Cat,” off 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings.
Architecture in Helsinki
Early on in Architecture’s Outdoor Theatre set, frontman Cameron Bird sheepishly admitted that the band had traveled all the way from their native Australia solely to play the fest for a mere 50-minutes. And play they did, launching into a series of delightfully upbeat – but undeniably avant-garde – indie pop songs that included old favorites (“Do the Whirlwind,” “The Cemetery”) and recent additions to the fivesome’s ever growing discography (“Lazy [Lazy],” “Like it or Not”) while giving props to Saturday night’s headliner, Prince.
By 5 p.m. Friday, the Coachella Stage became the venue of choice for lady rockers. As twins Kim and Kelley Deal rocked out to tunes off the recently released Mountain Battles (including the twice-begun album opener, “Overglazed”), those other twins, Tegan and Sara, waited on deck among the crowd, looking on in appreciation as their mainstage predecessors knocked one out of the park with “Bang On.”
Meanwhile, the swarm that amassed in time to catch the much-buzzed-about Vampire Weekend was nothing short of startling. Before a slowly setting sun, the fresh-faced New Yorkers dished up a bevy of bouncy hits (“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Campus” being the notable standouts). And with a throng of hipsters eating it up, the guys carefully launched into “A-Punk,” warning, “Sometimes it’s a good one to dance to, but if you’re too hot, don’t push it.”
Tegan and Sara
The second set of sisters to take to the Coachella Stage Friday had their work cut out for them. Following a rough-to-start-but-strong-to-finish set by the Breeders, the Canadian twins plugged in and rocked out for a short-but-sweet set of tracks off of 2007’s The Con and 2004’s So Jealous. Sonic high points included “Speak Slow” and “Floorplan,” but the sisterly banter also helped move the set along, and included a long discussion about the merits of sunscreen – especially for those wearing cheap cotton.
As the crowd amassed Friday evening to get a glimpse of Alison Goldfrapp and her bandmates, it quickly became apparent that the mid-sized Mojave Tent was not going to provide the space required to accommodate the Brits’ sizable fanbase. The set, which leaned heavy on the more atmospheric tunes that marked 2008’s Seventh Tree were good, but not nearly as danceable as the kids wanted them to be. But the setup (all woven tree branches, moody lighting, and enormous harps) and costume choices (Goldfrapp herself hit the stage barefoot in a light-catching coral nightie) made the shoving and neck craning more than worth it.
Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
The award for unsung hero of the day must be given to the pintsized powerhouse that is Miss Sharon Jones. Taking to a crowded Mojave Tent opposite The Verve and Spank Rock, the Brooklyn-based soul singer let her feet do the talking as she shimmied and shook along to a number of tracks off 2007’s 100 Days, 100 Nights. While the Kings churned out horn-driven accompaniment on “I’m Not Gonna Cry,” Jones shouted out to her costuming icon, Tina Turner. She then wowed the crowd with her unrivaled vocal might before launching into a tale about her ancestry (she’s part West African, part Native American), which concluded in a peace dance that thoroughly defied explanation, proving once and for all that James Brown-era funk is still alive and kickin’ in 2008.
Say what you will, but watching Jack Johnson perform to a crowd of hundreds of thousands has to hold a bit of sentimental value for anyone who’s ever claimed residency in Santa Barbara. And despite all the flack festival bookers received after claiming Jack as the Friday night headliner, the surfing strummer drew an impressive crowd of diligent followers to the Coachella Stage for his 11 p.m. set. The experience itself was not unlike any other concert Johnson has played, with the addition of an expansive sea of fans. And the tunes-which fluctuated between the poignant “Sleep Through the Static” and the danceable “Staple It Together” – all went off without incident, making for the perfect soundtrack to a cool desert night after a long, hot day of dancing.
Denver mariachi folk rockers DeVotchKa provided a nice surprise for Saturday early comers, rocking out atop the Outdoor Theatre stage with the help of odd instrumentation ranging from an enormous tuba, Theremin, and double bass to an accordion, sousaphone, and to two swimsuit clad aerialists by the name of the Amazing Slavic Sisters. And while I still can’t quite agree with the band’s decision to don formal wear and chug wine in 115 degree heat, I was definitely able to get behind the eclectic – and at times downright otherworldly – flamenco-tinged tunes, including the strangely pretty “Transliterator.”
The hands-down surprise of Saturday’s lineup came to me by way of Cafe Tacvba’s early evening stint on the Coachella Stage. The Mexican quintet happily greeted its slowly amassing audience despite still-rising triple digits, and played a set of Spanish tunes that incited dance parties throughout the crowd. Onstage, lead singer Ruben Isaac Albarr¡n Ortega jumped, skanked, and giddily screamed his way into the hearts of his non-fluent fans. And while some diligently waved Mexican flags in the band’s honor, most were simply happy to get their groove on, jamming to songs that ranged from the ska-tinged to the ever-necessary rock ballad.
With a new album (Made in the Dark) and a well-received previous year showing under their collective belts, it’s undeniable that the electro gurus behind Hot Chip earned their spot at the Sahara Tent on Saturday night. Opening up their set with the beat-heavy “Shake a Fist,” the guys got the crowd – which stretched far beyond the tent’s confines – up and moving before turning the volume down a notch for a chilled out take on “And I Was a Boy From School.” The end result: a solid, if not painfully cramped good time that simply made you wish they’d booked a bigger stage.
Death Cab for Cutie
Anyone who’s ever witnessed a Death Cab show knows that the band isn’t exactly known for their stage presence. That said, when Ben Gibbard and his posse hit the Coachella Stage early Saturday night, I couldn’t help but note how animated DCFC’s leading man had become. “I took a 5-Hour Energy four-and-a-half hours ago,” Gibbard explained before launching into an extra crunching version of “Soul Meets Body.” Highlights included “I Will Posses Your Heart” (complete with elongated jam sesh) and “”We Laugh Indoors,” but painfully little was heard from the soon-to-be-released Narrow Stairs.
Since the release of 2007’s Under the Blacklight, Jenny Lewis and her boys have been on the road and hard at work – and it shows. Atop the Outdoor Theatre Stage, the foursome managed to amass a sizable (if not slightly female-heavy) crowd of followers, most of whom were more than happy to crane their necks and sing along to Lewis’s poignantly pretty lyrics (and catch a glimpse of the songstress’s oddly desirable onesie). The tunes ranged from electric guitar-driven new tracks (“Breakin’ Up”) to older, acoustic jams (“Does He Love You?,” “I Never”), and even allowed for guitarist/Elected leading man Blake Sennett to take center stage for not one, but two songs that found Lewis playing backup.
Following the traffic jam that Hot Chip had created there only two hours prior, it came as no surprise that M.I.A.’s appearance on the Sahara stage caused more fan frustration and utter chaos than it did good times. Filled to the brim long before the Sri Lankan rapper cum fashion icon even showed her face – or her oversized white wig – the tent had become the must-see act of the day (if not the weekend), and authorities were not pleased. From not far away you could hear the recognizable recorded gun shots and screams, signaling her arrival. And songs like “Boys” and “Galang” kept the crowds outside the sweat box dancing. But attempts to bring fans onstage (which we could only catch glimpses of from beyond the tent) sent security guards into fits-and even temporarily halted the show. Needless to say, from where I was standing, the tracks sounded better coming out of my car speakers.
The lesson learned on Saturday night: Beth Gibbons can still wail. Portishead’s much talked about main stage showing marked the band’s first U.S. performance in ten years, and while the new material (the trio released Third this past Tuesday) was notably more lush and complex than what we remembered, little else seemed to have really changed. Gibbons proved herself the quintessential frontwoman, belting out old favorites (“Mysterons,” “Glory Box,” “Sour Times”) and new, computer-heavy tracks (“Silence,” “Machine Gun”) with force and feeling that rivaled anything the festival had seen thus far.
If past experience is any indicator, the longer you wait for a headlining act’s set to start, the more miserable your time will be (see: Madonna’s 2006 stint in the Sahara Tent). Luckily for us, the late-to-arrive artist not so formerly known as Prince managed to erase any ill will his fans may have held the second he walked onto the stage. Donning his requisite bedazzled tunic, the guitar god spun, skipped, and posed his way into the hearts of thousands Saturday night, playing hits that ranged from the party-starting “1999” to “I Feel for You,” which found Chaka Khan onstage to share vocal duties. He played “Purple Rain,” he covered the Beatles’ “Come Together,” he got the place dancing, and he drew a crowd that far surpassed any of the other nights’ headliners.
It becomes tough to recall fondly the greatness that once was Jane’s Addiction when frontman Perry Farrell keeps screwing around with the hits. Before a slowly dwindling crowd, the lanky rock star took to the Sahara Tent Sunday afternoon to perform a miserable collection of awkwardly electronic takes on one time favorites (including a slow, bloop-and-beep-heavy version of “Caught Stealing”). Add to that a sequin-clad backup “singer” shimmying around in a pair of hot pants, and you get the gist.
I’m From Barcelona
Despite the fact that their efforts to release oversized balloons to a crowd of eager fans completely backfired (the wind-plus-tent combo kept the pesky buggers from ever making it far past the first few rows of onlookers), the 17-piece indie choir known as I’m From Barcelona managed to knock one out of the park early Sunday afternoon. Led by resident eccentric Emanuel Lundgren, the Swedish group took to the stage to belt out a number of songs off 2006’s Let Me Introduce My Friends. And while sonic highlights came by way of “Collection of Stamps” and the show-opening “Treehouse,” the true fun came when things got interactive. Lundgren spent a good chunk of the set amid the audience (which filled the Mojave Tent by the time all was said and done), crowd surfing through songs and leading a post-set conga line outside the confines of the venue that found fans and passersby giddily sprinting behind one anther as they chased the band to a soundtrack of pre-recorded beats.
Donning a sky blue mini dress that made her look like a real life Alice in Wonderland, Wales’ newest export took to a packed Mojave Tent Sunday afternoon to belt out a few soulful songs off of her recently released debut, Rockferry. And while I can find no real complaints with Duffy’s performance per se, one couldn’t help but think that the squeaky clean, soft spoken songstress with the rich, soul-ready singing voice was simply playing the part of the cheap man’s Amy Winehouse. Tunes like “Serious,” while lush in sound, were fairly empty lyrically – making the whole thing sound more derivative than authentic vintage.
Mixing pirate rock and gypsy punk, the gents behind New York’s Gogol Bordello proved to live up to the hype, putting on a performance Sunday afternoon that was part underground, hardcore chaos, and part pure theatricality. The star of the show: lead singer/first mate Eugene H¼tz, whose Eastern European ancestry more than accounts for his Borat meets Flogging Molly vocal prowess. H¼tz, who came out swigging a bottle of red wine despite the still-soaring midday heat, spent the set jumping, clapping, and snarling in between songs, and incited a near riot in the pit below the Coachella Stage.
Kidsister with A-Trak
Despite the fact that I had to ditch out of the Gobi Tent before Kid “Pro Nails” Sister even hit the stage, A-Trak’s portion of the Sunday afternoon split bill did not disappoint. For the uninitiated, Mr. Trak is best known for his remix of Kanye’s “Stronger” (which threw the packed crowd into fits of fist pumping), and later his gig as West’s official tour DJ. His set – the ideal mix of recognizable hip hop beats and killer remixes (check out his treatment of Count & Sinden’s “Beeper”) – also got a little extra dose of star cred when big brother Dave 1 (of Chromeo) showed up to give his lil’ bro some onstage lovin’.
My Morning Jacket
With the final day of sweltering temps finally beginning to cool down, My Morning Jacket hit the fest’s main stage and cranked up the volume in true rock star fashion. New tracks off the band’s forthcoming album, Evil Urges, littered the setlist, and tracks like “One Big Holiday” elated old fans, but the high point came when MMJ launched into the ska-meets-alt-country single, “Off the Record.”
While throwback duds and nostalgic, Hendrix-style guitar licks could be seen and heard throughout the weekend, it was Roger Waters’s Sunday night set that truly made the place feel like a modern-day Woodstock. With enormous fans blowing rock star-atmosphere fog at him from every angle, Waters promptly took the stage not long after sunset to jam out for a near solid two-and-a-half hours. The songs-all from Pink Floyd’s ever-expansive discography-included both the relevant (“Mother”) and the psychedelic (“Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun”). Waters, who is nearing 65 years, proved he still knows his way around a guitar, and rightfully paced himself by taking things slow and stepping offstage for a short intermission a little after 10 p.m., before returning to rock through all of the band’s classic Dark Side of the Moon.