Blessed be the person who decided to push up this year’s Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. For the 2009 go-around, attendees were graced with not only a more solid lineup, but cooler, downright bearable temperatures for the usual scorcher of a three-day party in the desert. That’s not to say that pre-sundown breezes were all that ’09 had to offer. On hand for the event were some of music’s most prolific (Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen), promising (Los Campesinos!, Lykke Li), and party-happy (Girl Talk, M.I.A.) performers – all housed within 78 acres over the span of fewer than 72 hours. Below you’ll find a rundown of what we caught, as well as pictures aplenty of all the on-and off-stage action. Hang onto your hats, folks, because year 10 was a wild, wild ride.
Friday, April 17
Unsurprisingly, the sold-out first day of the fest packed the strongest punch of the weekend. Early on, Mexico City’s Molotov drew an impressive crowd to the Outdoor Theatre with their high energy mix of rap and power metal. Sure, most of it was in Spanish, but I’m pretty confident I got the gist (including something that sounded like the Beastie Boys doing “Baby Got Back” en Espa±ol). The Airborne Toxic Event brought their signature brand of affected hipster rock to the mainstage around 4 p.m. with songs like “Papillon,” but more than made up for it with some serious string work (two violinist and a cello) and infectious energy. But the afternoon’s hands-down highlight came by way of the youngsters in Los Campesinos! After packing the tiny-by-comparison Gobi tent, the Wales-based seven-piece launched into “You’ll Need Those Fingers for Crossing” and quickly captured some serious attention. Between frontman Gareth Campesinos’s repeated puffs on a neon orange inhaler and the back-and-forth vocals of “This Is How You Spell ‘HAHAHA, We Destroyed the Hopes and Dreams of a Generation of Faux-Romantics,'” the set was pure youthful genius.
While M. Ward struggled with sound troubles early on in his stint (most of “Sad, Sad Song” sadly got played sans speakers) The Black Keys powered through a slew of bluesy rock-outs to a smoke-happy mainstage audience. Late afternoon saw The Ting Tings‘ frontwoman Katie White yelping her way through building numbers like “We Walk” and “Shut Up and Let Me Go,” and Beirut going all gypsy orchestral on tracks off of the recent March of the Zapotec EP and 2007’s The Flying Club Cup. But it was the frenetic sounds of Crystal Castles that stole the evening slot. Castles’ lady member, Alice Glass, spent her time onstage scaling the tent’s scaffolding and wailing on a vocoder against some seriously high-octane 8-bit synths for songs like “Alice Practice” and “Xxzxcuzx Me” – in other words, pure whacked out dance-y heaven. Come sundown, mash-up maestro Girl Talk and his bevy of backup dancers filled the Sahara tent with samples ranging from Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” without losing his indie cred (and finished his set by crowd surfing via inflatable boat). And a 74-year-young Leonard Cohen showed up sporting a fedora and a full band for a beautifully orchestrated collection of tunes (including “Everybody Knows” and “Hallelujah”) at the Outdoor Theatre.
Still, the sounds (and fireworks) that rang out during Paul McCartney‘s night-ending set were unmatchable. Sure, the sentimentality might have been cranked up a notch, what with Friday being the anniversary of Linda’s passing, but songs like “Paperback Writer,” “Hey Jude,” and “Get Back” functioned near-perfectly on their own. Dressed in a crisp white shirt and black suspenders, the former Beatle wailed on his Rickenbacker, gave his crowd about 50 “woo hoos,” and played for well over two hours.
The highlight: “The Long and Winding Road” and “My Love,” both dedicated to his late wife. “She loved the dessert and she loved music – she loved rock ‘n’ roll,” he said of Linda before launching into the latter. Needless to say, I’m confident there were more than a few moist eyes in the house by the start of the first chorus.
Saturday, April 18
Come Saturday, we found Dr. Dog (fittingly) channeling the Beatles early on in the afternoon, Superchunk offering up “Detroit Has a Skyline,” and Arizona’s Calexico bringing some much-needed Spanish-infused brass to the Outdoor Theatre. By 6:30, it was time to bring out the big guns, and New York’s TV on the Radio most definitely delivered – loudly. Horns abounded on the majority of tracks they pulled from last year’s Dear Science (“DLZ,” “Crying,” “Golden Age”), and favorites like “Wolf Like Me” got the Coachella Stage crowd’s fists pumping. With the levels cranked up so high, things got a little distorted by the time they hit any of us behind the soundboard, but the onstage improvisation and extended, speedy jam outs more than made up for the barely-there vocals.
Not far away, Seattle’s Fleet Foxes were lighting up the other outdoor stage and braving the almighty (and sonically invasive) sounds of Thievery Corporation‘s concurrent and guest-appearance-filled set. Minus the sound bleed issue, songs like “Your Protector,” “Mykonos,” and the almost-a capella “Tiger Mountain Peasant Song” were pitch perfect, thanks to frontman Robin Pecknold’s spectacular ability to belt a tune while keeping time on his acoustic. Band of Horses followed soon after, making good on their upbeat discography and surprising even fans with just how crisply tunes like “The Great Salt Lake” and “The General Specific” reverberated beyond the stage perimeter.
What happened next was either a laughable disaster or a genius showcase, depending on whom you talk to. Fresh off last year’s catastrophic (and riot-inducing) Sahara Tent showing, hip-hopper M.I.A. took to the mainstage for a political rap sermon of sorts. Behind a podium and donning a military official’s hat and a pair of skintight acid wash jeans, the pintsized Sri Lankan started things of with “World Town” and called on her deejay to deliver one of about 200 blaring air horn samples. What followed was a bevy of hits (“Boyz,” “Bird Flu,” “Galang”), plenty of glow-in-the-dark dancers, a few laser gun noises, and a near-mutiny when she decided to invite fans onstage. The whole performer-versus-charging-fans-versus-security-guards debacle shaved about 20 minutes off of her actual stage time, but ended with nearly 100 audience members posing, mugging, and shaking what their mommas gave them for a crowd of thousands. Conclusion: a narrow win for both M.I.A. and those who stuck it out.
After the sonic warfare ended, the always classy (and laser gun-free) Jenny Lewis brought things back down to earth with a solid set at the Outdoor Theatre. She packed in plenty of tracks off her recently released Acid Tongue, including the rollicking “See Fernando,” the throwback country-fied “Jack Killed Mom,” and the long and winding “The Next Messiah,” as well as the up-tempo “Cartpetbaggers” (complete with a tongue-in-cheek shout out).
The Killers closed things out without incident, failing to either epically disappoint or convert any non-fans over to their Vegas-spawned neo-New Wave camp. Love ’em or hate ’em, hits like “Mr. Brightside,” “All These Things That I’ve Done,” and “Smile Like You Mean It” had almost everyone in the place bopping and scream-singing along, leaving me to believe that in the human versus dancer debate, most Coachella-goers are, in fact, closet dancers.
Sunday, April 19
While temps hit a weekend high on Sunday, attendance levels hit a low. And with the added bonus of thinner crowds, we troupers were finally allowed to maneuver freely about the grounds. Gaslight Anthem provided an energetic, if a bit straightforward mid-afternoon set. Sebastien Tellier put the synths and electric drum kit to work in the Gobi Tent, and Brian Jonestown Massacre filled the stage with their eight-member-strong brand of psychedelic rock. But the first undeniable impact of the day came from Outdoor Theatre performer Lykke Li. The Swedish electro popster appeared on stage swathed in flowing black and a couple pounds of necklaces, dishing up plenty of dance-worthy beats on tracks like “Complaint Department” and “Breaking It Up,” and posing like a true rock ‘n’ roll professional. She also had in her arsenal one of the hardest-working drummers of the weekend, who provided delightfully spot-on, off-kilter rhythms throughout the set.
Li also showed up later in the day, singing backup vocals one stage over during Peter Bjorn and John‘s show. The three Swedes pulled off a delightfully eclectic set despite the late afternoon sun, churning out a solid mix of bouncy pop (“Lay It Down”), synth-happy funk (“Amsterdam”), and carefree, high-pitched choruses (“Nothing to Worry About”).
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs hit the big stage not long after, playing through sundown against an enormous, free-floating inflatable eyeball backdrop. Of course, frontlady Karen O showed up dressed (unsurprisingly) a little bit crazy. Cloaked in oversized, light-catching gold and silver disks, O shook and shimmied her way through oldies (“Gold Lion,” “Y Control”) and the new stuff (“Dull Life,” “Skeletons”) without missing a beat, a scream, or a ray of fading sunlight. As they had a few years prior, the YYYs got the crowd about as hyped as a couple thousand people can get. “Black Tongue” even found passersby twitching and screaming obscenities along with the masses.
Meanwhile, over in tent land, not-all-that-freaky freak folkster Devendra Banhart was gathering the hippies for a quality sing-a-long sesh. Lucky for us, hippies never get anywhere on time, so we had a decent view for the first few songs, including the welcomingly mellow “Hey Mama Wolf” and some “new pop song” without a name.
Following the show, post-punk purveyors My Bloody Valentine blasted through the sound barrier quite literally, playing at a volume that I truly never knew any P.A. system could handle. The London-based quartet churned out the strongest wall of sound I’ve ever heard by way of songs like “When You Sleep” and “To Here Knows When,” all the while keeping more or less expressionless. The diehards ate it up, and the majority of the Coachella Valley’s residents are probably still hearing the effects, but the result was pure history-making goodness. And while few of us could stick around for it all, The Cure allegedly doled out almost three hours of music on Sunday night, including the brilliantly orchestrated classics like “Lovesong,” “Pictures of You,” “Just Like Heaven,” and “It’s Over.” And yes, Robert Smith looked just as scary from three football fields away as he does up close. No matter though, because the band is about as well rehearsed and sonically spot on as one can get. A fine – and epic – end to Coachella ’09 indeed.