I am a musical tourist at this year’s Coachella. I come packing heat–sunscreen, snacks, phone, notebook, sweater, gigantic sunglasses, and the pocket-sized festival bible. As with any trip to an exotic land, the experience is singularly personal and one can see as much or as little as one wants, but when there’s such a perfectly choreographed onslaught of musical schizophrenia why the fuck would one not want to see everything their legs could carry them to in time? If you’re going to whine about the heat or the crowds, don’t come to a music festival in the desert.
First stop: Baroness. True to their roots, these southern belles (they look like they do very un-metal things like take care of themselves and do yoga and eat quinoa) showed us a bit of that hospitality people from their part of the world are known for, graciously calling us in from the crushing, midday heat with synchronous sledgehammer guitar riffs. It’s almost upsetting that people as accomplished as singer John Baizley—who fronts this band and makes incredible Alphonse Mucha-esque lithographs, too—exist.
We wandered over to the main stage to see Wale, but when nothing was going on (we overheard Wale was a no-show) made our way to Deer Tick, where singer John McCauley channeled Kurt Cobain with white Wayfarer sunglasses and a lovely sundress which he didn’t fail to point out was completely called for by the equally lovely weather. While McCauley was hilarious, engaging and damn foxy in a dress, and the music was great, I felt like I wanted to see them in a dim, booze-soaked dive rather than in the golden desert.
The Avett Brothers perhaps strategized to counter the force of stage presence-sucking desert by bouncing. They played happy songs, sad songs, saccharine love songs, and still they bounced. Swinging a cello, picking a banjo, playing keyboard, and harmonizing like an Appalachian back porch band, and still they bounced: gleefully, infectiously.
Speaking of infection, there was a confusing portion of the afternoon during which some awful bands played. Iglu & Hartly—who are less horrific recorded although their vocals are still irritatingly nasal and stylized—sounded tone deaf and looked plain silly skanking across the stage. Their jeans seemed to be a metaphor for their stylistic confusion—skinny but sagged to reveal unmentionables. Are they rock? Are they rap? Are they Disney-esque pop? All seem to apply, but not in any happy combination—if a happy version of that combination were even possible.
The unfortunate rap-rock resurrection continued with Tom Morello’s Street Sweeper Social Club, who opened with a cover of M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” that avoided any improvement on the original and then continued in the same vein in spite of a guest appearance from former Rage Against the Machine drummer Brad Wilk.
Sleigh Bells’ screaming, jumping, fist-pumping extravaganza, however, seemed to find a more harmonious synthesis of genres. Their rapping and screaming with Derek Miller’s guitar shredding and bass beats that felt like they were liquefying my organs recalled tent lineups of yore—like M.I.A.—but the strange falsetto singer Alexis Krauss occasionally deployed broke the spell.
Musical geezers/giants owned the night. Gil Scott-Heron’s smoother-than-silk vocals and piano demanded and thankfully received the respectful silence they deserved. (Or hand-clapping and singing along as per Gil’s requests.) Just as when Booker T. and the MG’s performed at last year’s Coachella, it seemed the crowd recognized an opportunity to see a musical pioneer who’s experimentation has played a major role in shaping the current state of hip hop and soul.
The Specials reminded us that they are still important because 30 years later, their songs are still as listenable and fun as they were in 1977, and the issues they wrote abou—racism, the seeming inescapability of the rat race, and general good-time having—are still just as relevant. Also, Jerry Dammer told the crowd they were mostly really beautiful but with “really fucking ugly” ones interspersed, and what good festival crowd doesn’t enjoy a little abuse?
Johnny Rotten né John Lydon continued the reign of the olds with Public Image Ltd., belting songs in implacable, quavering shouts. In a quote on PiL’s official webpage, Lydon states, “We would like to thank Coachella in the furtherance of our quest to lead where others can only dream to follow.” While humility is clearly not a strong suit for Rotten, recognizing his place in the annals of modern music is.
We rounded out the evening with Imogen Heap’s spectacular one (wo)man band and the Knife’s Karin Dreijer Andersson as Fever Ray. Heap played a glorious plexiglass piano and looped instruments and sang, piercing the nighttime chill with her powerful, distinctive voice.
Performing mostly in the dark save for a milky, machine-made haze and some antique lamps that blinked in time with the beat, Fever Ray’s pulsating ballads took on the physical properties of the smoke, enveloping the crowd in waves and distorting the world around them. While the beefy, electronic sounds of Andersson’s other band, the Knife, were still audible in Fever Ray’s set, Andersson and her band gave it a decidedly mystical, almost psychedelic twist that lingered as we ended Coachella 2010 Part 1 to Jay-Z’s “It’s a Hard Knock Life.” The hip-hop world’s favorite retiree still knows how to work a crowd, managing to keep tired concertgoers moving even with the double handicap of being the last big set of the night on the difficult to conquer Coachella main stage.
Concert Stage Path:
Mojave (Baroness) → Coachella (Wale) → Outdoor Theatre (Deer Tick) → Gobi (Iglu & Hartly) → Mojave (As Tall As Lions) → Outdoor (The Avett Brothers) → Coachella (Calle 13) → Gobi (Sleigh Bells) → Mojave (Yeasayer) → Gobi (Hockey) <<
— Tattoos everywhere—they now cross generational, social, racial and “scene” boundaries. The majority of them are still stupid, but the new thing seems to be cursive text tattoos. Apologies to anyone who got them when they were still unusual.
— My first light show—given by a girl wearing two glowing orb rings, a bikini top, shorts and nothing else
— Tussle with security and eventual victory sprint by shirtless concert invader. Security guard was too fat to keep up with him.
— Backstage pass NEVER GETS OLD.
— Beautiful people
— Baroness, Yeasayer, Deer Tick, the Avett Brothers, Gil Scott-Heron, The Specials, LCD Soundsystem, Public Image Ltd., Jay-Z, Fever Ray.