Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Coachella 2010, Day 1: Oh, the humanity!

It's April, and for me that means one thing: Coachella.  After being drawn to the desert in 2004 by Radiohead and the Pixies, I've been every year since.  As I like to say, it's the greatest weekend of my life and it happens every year.  That may be a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit.  Nowhere else can I see so many bands all in the same place, and it's more or less guaranteed to surprise me.  This year was no different, though it did get off to a rocky start.  In the days leading up to the festival Goldenvoice had announced that the festival was sold out, and that the number of tickets sold was 75,000, the most I can remember in the seven years I've been going.  So I anticipated a lot of people, but what I encountered was another thing entirely.

Coachella 2010 was different from previous years for me, in that each day had two or three bands I absolutely had to see, and then a whole bunch of bands I was interested in, wanted to check out for curiosity's sake, or or had been told by others to give a try.  So on Friday, the first day, my group tried to head to the venue early enough to dip our toes into a few different bands.  After a slow crawl into the parking lot, we headed to the line to get in around 2:15, feeling like we were making good time.  Sure, the line was crazy long, but it certainly couldn't take longer than a half hour to get in, right?  Little did we know, but that line was gonna be our home for the foreseeable future.  See, this was the first year of only three-day passes, so the plan was to scan everyone's ticket and give them a wristband to wear for the whole weekend.  The only problem with this plan was Goldenvoice's apparent inability to make enough of these available.  Somehow, they ran out of wristbands at the entrance where we were waiting, something that should have never happened.  To make matters worse, the ticket scanners broke, so even once they had more wristbands, they had no way to account for everyone, and rather than just tearing tickets and keeping them, they let us rot in line.

Please don't misunderstand me, I can accept that things go wrong, even if the wristband shortage is something that should have been figured out logistically before anyone got there.  Even the lack of people to check tickets and bags can be explained away as a slip-up, and the scanners breaking is probably no one's fault.  But what really irked me, and everyone else in line, was the complete failure of anyone working the venue--not security, not the people in the yellow volunteer shirts, fucking nobody--to come out into the crowd to tell us what was going on.  Everything I heard about this SNAFU came from people who had ventured up to the front to ask.  So there we stood, the eighty degree weather approaching one hundred in that sweaty sea of angry humanity, wondering if this was really what we paid $300 to do.  At one point, after we'd been there for close to two hours with nary a forward step, my friend turned to me and said, "Brian, what was life like before The Line?"  Finally they brought more people to tear tickets the old fashioned way, and after another (thankfully brief) line to check our bags and backpacks, we were in.  All it took was two and a half hours.

At this point many of the early bands I had wanted to see were already done, and my only concern was to find some water and a schedule to figure out the plan going forward.  Water acquired, we headed to the beer garden near the tents to ease the pain and wait for Ra Ra Riot to start in the Mojave.  Walking to the opposite end of the venue, it dawned on me just how many people were there.  I've been to Coachella when it sold out before, but I've never seen it so packed at five.  Getting from one place to another required complex geometry just to navigate the human traffic going in every direction, and the beer garden hit capacity shortly after we walked in.  But beers in hand, we were happier, and ready to really start our Coachella.

Ra Ra Riot, Mojave Tent, 5:35

If it feels like I've written an awful lot in this concert review without actually talking about any live music, yeah, well, it took a while.  But finally we were seeing an actual band, and it didn't take long to switch from angry consumer mode to Coachella guy mode, even if the first band we saw wasn't one I was excited about.  I went to Ra Ra Riot because my girlfriend wanted to check them out, but I was unfamiliar.  For some reason I assumed they were British based solely on their name, but when lead singer Wes Miles started talking that theory was quickly debunked.  With a standard bass-guitar-drums set up augmented by a cello and violin, they were the perfect light and breezy cure for how I was feeling.  They didn't sound exactly like them, but they kept reminding me of Belle & Sebastian, and that was a good thing.  Sound problems kept them from making the impact they might have, but I enjoyed it, and it felt like I was finally there.

She & Him, Outdoor Theatre, 5:45

After five or six songs at Ra Ra Riot, it was time to get out of the muggy Mojave and move on to a band I actually knew, She & Him.  M. Ward and Zooey Deschanel's indie folk sounded like an ideal match for the Outdoor Theatre, and a good place to relax for a bit.  When we got there it was pretty packed, though we soon learned that was the case everywhere.  I enjoy She & Him, but one problem with them is the tendency of their charming, pretty, country-tinged songs to blend together, and that was even more evident in the open space here.  I quickly realized that I was wrong, they should have been in a tent to hold their sound in and give it more immediacy.  But I did get to hear my favorite song, "This is Not a Test," and Deschanel's vocals sounded as great as they do on the records.  M. Ward took over during the end of the set, singing Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," and it finally got the crowd really going, but it also highlighted the difference in energy from their own songs.  When just the two of them came back on to do an encore (unheard of at mid-day Coachella, but made possible by the handful of cancellations caused by the Icelandic volcano), they opted for "I Put a Spell On You," but that too was a miss.  That song needs to sound dangerous and aggressive to be effective, but Zooey opted for sultry, and it just didn't work.  In the end, it felt like they lingered just a little too long, and I left thinking they would be better served in a smaller venue like the Fonda or El Rey.  It's ok Zooey, you're still adorable!

With nothing coming up immediately that I wanted to see, it was time to drink some more.  What?  That line was stressful.  This particular beer garden wasn't nearly as packed as the first one we'd been to, though lines were still long everywhere you looked.  Passion Pit came on next door at the Outdoor Theatre, but I had energy for little more than sitting and drinking.  Soon, though, the feeling that I would miss something if I didn't get moving again kicked in, and we made our way to the Coachella Stage to see the first of my must-see bands for the weekend: Them Crooked Vultures.

Them Crooked Vultures, Coachella Stage, 7:50

I've raved/written about these guys before, but it really must be said again: this is a hell of a band.  Every year there are inevitable conflicts on the schedule, and this year Friday had a doozy.  Do I see Them Crooked Vultures, who I know are gonna kill on the main stage, or do I go see Grizzly Bear, the critical darlings whose album I half-love, in the Mojave and hope their reportedly transcendent live show translates out here in the desert?  While disappointing, ultimately it wasn't much of a choice--I followed the songs, and that led me to Josh Homme, Dave Grohl and John Paul Jones.  As with their show in LA in November, they opened it up with "No One Loves Me & Neither Do I," a song that quite literally explodes in the second half after a rather standard classic rock-sounding opening.  Not surprisingly, the crowd approved.  Then they went into "Dead End Friends," a faster track, and the people were theirs.  When introducing the band, lead singer Homme introduced Jones as being "on every instrument known to man," and the audience certainly knew they were watching a rock--hell, music--legend based on their reaction.  "I'm Josh and you know me; I live here.  It's great to have you in my home, Coachella!" 

Homme seemed to take extra pleasure in his home-field advantage, and he sounded every bit as good as he does on the record, hitting the highs and lows throughout the whole set.  They opened up a couple songs, notably "Scumbag Blues," giving Jones a bass solo and a deserved spotlight.  On a personal note, they played perhaps my favorite from the album, "Gunman," calling it a dance number (which backed up my claim in that earlier review that it was 'evil disco'), and "Spinning in Daffodils" was much more effective than the recorded version, featuring a dark and captivating piano solo from Jones.  Since they weren't the headliners they didn't have a big time slot, so they were limited to eight songs, but they closed on a high note with their two singles, "Mind Eraser, No Chaser" and "New Fang."  The crowd wasn't as large as perhaps they deserved, what with Grizzly Bear and Echo & the Bunnymen playing at the same time, but those of us there knew we'd made the right choice.

Set List: No One Loves Me & Neither Do I / Dead End Friends / Scumbag Blues / Gunman / Caligulove / Spinning in Daffodils / Mind Eraser, No Chaser / New Fang

Because we thought there might still be time, my friends and I sacrificed our good spot for LCD Soundsystem and rushed over to the Mojave to try to catch the end of Grizzly Bear.  As it turned out we only caught the last two songs, but one of them was their second-best song, "While You Wait for the Others," so it wasn't a total loss.  The song climaxes with all four members harmonizing almost a cappella while the music slowly swells in the background; hearing it live sealed my fate as far as seeing them again.  No "Two Weeks," but nobody's that lucky.  A little disappointed, but happy we at least got to see part of it, we headed back over to the main stage to try to find another good spot.

LCD Soundsystem, Coachella Stage, 9:05

Finally, here was one of my most anticipated performances of the weekend.  LCD Soundsystem released one of my top five albums of the previous decade, and the only time I'd ever seen them was before I even knew how much I loved it.  I was a little worried that their sound might not carry well enough on the main stage, and maybe I wasn't alone; lead singer/mastermind James Murphy talked about how they weren't used to being a "main course" at the festival: "Usually we're the mixed nuts over on the other side," referring to the Sahara dance tent.  Not screwing around, they started with the almost ten minute "Us V Them" to get us all in a dancing mood, but I could already tell that they were a mismatch for the stage.  They played well, Murphy's voice was strong, but with the winds and the wide open spaces, a lot of the little things got lost, and it felt like there were gaps in the music.  Next was "Drunk Girls, " a new song, and it fared a little better because it's heavier on the guitar and keyboards.  I'm not gonna lie, I'm in possession of a leaked copy of the forthcoming album This is Happening, and "Drunk Girls" was not one of my early favorites, but here it had an added energy and depth that made it more than just the silly detour I thought it was.  Other new tracks they played were "Pow Pow" and standout "I Can Change," which was one of the best songs of their set.  Throughout the day I'd been running into people I knew much more frequently than usual at Coachella, so I couldn't help but add some significance to "All My Friends," the obvious highlight and crowd pleaser of the set.  Or maybe I'm biased, since it's one of my favorite songs. 

Throughout the set Murphy squandered precious time with goofy banter, sometimes talking into songs with no transition, but he was nothing if not amusing and enthusiastic.  After "Pow Pow" he realized they were running out of time, and announced to the crowd that they had three songs left on the set list but would only be able to do one.  As the people booed, Murphy responded, "No, fuck that!  We're here to have fun!  Ok, we're gonna do 'New York'--no, fuck that!  We're gonna do 'Yeah!'"  And "Yeah" they did, bringing the damn house down, probably the one moment in the set when they truly conquered the main stage.  "Yeah yeah yeah yeah, yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!" Murphy shouted over and over again, and we shouted along like crazy people, dancing and jumping and losing our shit.  Sensing the victory, Murphy asked for six more minutes, and the band closed with the atypical (for them, anyway) piano ballad "New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down," which crescendos with an epic guitar solo, a big rock moment for a band that maybe was playing a little against type, but ultimately did it very well.

Set List: Us V Them / Drunk Girls / Losing My Edge / All My Friends / I Can Change / Pow Pow / Yeah / New York, I Love You but You're Bringing Me Down

Sometime during the end of the set, my friends splintered off, so I wandered over to the Outdoor Theatre to get some water.  Vampire Weekend was on, and I've been pretty vocal in my distaste for them, so I didn't fancy dealing with the likely huge crowd I was going to encounter over there, but I was thirsty and it was the closest one.  Fate intervened, as it so often does at Coachella, and I ran into three more of my friends immediately after buying my water.  After being the recipient of an enthusiastic (drunken?) triple hug and cheer, they talked me into following them to Vampire Weekend.  Not to get all Jerry Orbach in Dirty Dancing here, but I can admit when I'm wrong, and Vampire Weekend proved me wrong, on this night anyway.  I saw them here two years ago and I thought it was boring as hell, but playing to a much larger crowd, they had a different energy and confidence.  I still don't have any desire to buy their records, but for seven songs they entertained me, and that was more than I ever would have expected from them and their indie pop sound.  When they were done, my friends all headed to the main stage to find a spot for Jay-Z, but I'm not a rap guy, to say the least, so I wandered off on my own for a bit, waiting for Public Image Limited to start.

Public Image Limited, Outdoor Theatre, 11:20
Having been told by my friend Spencer to check these guys out, this was the perfect alternative to Jay-Z and the droves of people he was going to attract.  I'd had my fill of crowds for the day, and anyway, who wouldn't want to check out Johnny Rotten's other band?  This was actually not my first time seeing him, as one of my earliest concerts was the Sex Pistols' Filthy Lucre reunion tour, but I was amazed by how little he seemed to have aged in fourteen years.  Yeah, he looked scary, but that was the case back then as well.  "Jay-Z giving you a headache?  Take a PiL!" he announced as he took the stage to laughs and applause.  However, he did manage to keep his banter relatively light and simple throughout the set, letting the music speak for itself.  And boy, did it ever.  In many ways you could view PiL as an earlier incarnation of LCD Soundsystem: dance rock written as rock and roll.  The bass and the drums carry the day, but the guitar was formidable as well, and I was impressed by the amount of sound a three piece band like them was creating.  They opened with "This is Not a Love Song," and anyone like me who was merely curious was sold.  Rotten, or John Lydon as he prefers to go by, still has a powerful wail, and he moved in a strangely mechanical way that fit the music perfectly.  If I'd had any energy left at the end of a long day, I'd have been dancing, but I contented myself with rocking in place.  After seeing two of my favorite bands only hours before, PiL closed out the night with one of those unexpectedly great sets you can always count on finding at Coachella.  Happy and exhausted, I wandered toward the meeting point to collect everybody and go rest up for day 2.

Photos by, OC Register and me

1 comment:

Matthew Minegar said...

Wow, that was just Day 1! Can't wait for the Day 2 write-up!