April 22nd, 2012 | Live reviews

Sunday was the first real day of Coachella-esque weather (Sun!!! And heat!), and so it was fitting to start the day in the audience of Lissie, whose deep surfer tan seemed shockingly natural, like she imported it from an era when Linda Ronstadt was revolutionary. Lissie’s a singer songwriter whose music is a little hard to engage with, not because it’s dissonant or angry, but because it’s deceptively accessible. You might even call it boring, until you set a spell and really listen to the no-holds-barred, truly introspective lyrics coming out of her. Imagine if, say, Taylor Dane picked up an acoustic guitar and started belting out songs about sinking her claws into the flanks of fame: “I want to be famous/I got to be shameless/you don’t know what my name is!” Meanwhile, the bearded guitarist on her right sang her words like he was enjoying them in his mouth the way you might enjoy a cheeseburger. She ended her set with an inspired cover, Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness”: “People told me slow my road—I’m screaming out ‘fuck that!’ I’m gonna do just what I want…”

Meanwhile Housse De Racket in the Gobi tent was dealing with Americans’ inability to pronounce French. “If we can manage to pronounce Coooochella, can you manage to pronounce Housse de Racket?” they asked, half in earnest. I hadn’t heard their brand of Strokes-esque garage before: it was two-piece jangle indie with a smirk, dressed up all in white, plus some percolating beats and keyboards from a small Korg. Good stuff, especially their unexpected Beach Boys cover!

I wish I could say the same thing about Greg Ginn’s solo project. I arrived late, and the sparse attendance warned me that something was amiss: this was clearly the same crowd who embraced fIREHOSE the day before, and you know that any guy from Black Flag should be able to draw a crowd, yet there were only 50 people at most in a tent that can hold thousands. People must have fled!

I feel bad, because the Ginn’s heart is in the right place. Rather than doing a revival of the old punk sounds, ala OFF!, he’s trying to express himself in a brand new format. But he chose the wrong genre to do haphazardly. When he started playing guitar riffs over a drum track, and occasionally waving his hand at a theremin, he immediately stepped into the realm of bands like Corridor, or Geoff Geis, or Bobb Bruno’s solo stuff, just to name a handful. Do you know how many one man bands there are in Los Angeles alone, kids three generations descended from his own music, who can beat the pants off Ginn in this department? Ginn failed, spectacularly, and it was ugly. Hopefully some day he comes to his senses and does something worthwhile, like reform Black Flag.

Wild Beasts next door at the Mojave were better, but only by degree—and unlike Greg Ginn, the audience was going apeshit. I don’t see why: at its best, these 80s imitators sounded like Bryan Ferry singing “More than This,” except with all the charm and twinkle sucked out, leaving a residue that stunk of congealed Spandau Ballet, When in Rome, Haircut 100—and before you start to think “Wow, I love those bands, and that sounds awesome,” remember that the best singles by those bands were great because they had such strong personality! Drain the personality, and you’ll have Wild Beasts. Henri Matisse wants to paint their noses red… with blood.

I should have stayed at the main stage, because Santigold was living up to every ounce of hype she’s ever gotten. It’s hard to peg a genre on Santigold aside from “awesome,” but on a fashion level, she was putting her love of the 80s into stark reality: her background singers had DEVO/Klaus Nomi outfits on, and she herself had crazy shoulder pads not seen since Tina Turner’s appearance in Beyond Thunderdome. And she wrapped up the entire thing with rim-shot rhythms that sounded quite a bit like Bow Wow Wow.

The Growlers at the Outdoor stage were dressed only as themselves, which is to say, like hipsters who live at the beach without necessarily ever going into the water. Singer Brooks Neilson was laying down his litany of lyrics like he always does, casually yet vividly, his flow a full frontal evocation of Jim Morrison. It also hearkens back to smartie-pants bands like the Smiths, though less so nowadays (his verbal pauses, like his fame, are expanding with every show). They concluded with the perfect song for the doe-eyed Coachella crowd, “Drugs Drugs Drugs,” in which Neilson told his adoring fans that “If you want to be free, you have to be a junkie.”

Whereas Thundercat didn’t need drugs to make you feel high—his outfit did the job just fine. Honestly, despite all the hype and all the amazing impromptu jams he’s done with some of my favorite Low End Theory denizens, I’m not the biggest fan of his act, just because the punk rock part of my brain can’t allow me to enjoy music with this much noodling. Seriously, even if you’re playing in the fusion/funk/R&B world, do you really need a six string bass? Actually, if you’re Thundercat, you do; and while it fits his style perfectly, it evokes a kind of proggy precision that just doesn’t move me. And I think he’s still working on getting memorable songs together.

Luckily his set segued into Gaslamp Killer’s, which was far more enjoyable despite being far less intricate. Though he did have some cool mixes, including a song that threw in a children’s record about learning the drums, this set was mostly about being a selector. He played “I Am the Walrus” by the Beatles, and had his captive audience dutifully screamed “WHOOOO!” during the chorus. Then he dug deep, and found himself some Eazy-E, and had the balls to play the diss track “Real Muthaphuckkin Gs,” with the sample “Motherfuck Dre, motherfuck Snoop, motherfuck Death Row.” Considering Dre would be playing the main stage in mere hours, it was a pretty punk rock selection, and laugh-out-loud funny.

Speaking of funny, did you know that Carrie Brownstein from Portlandia has a band? I’m kidding, of course, but only half-way: seeing Carrie Brownstein’s recent stints in her amazing comedy television show really did clue me in to a wit I’d found lacking in the work of Sleater-Kinney, her decade-long band that was always critically acclaimed but which I felt was locked into an anachronistic sound that needed to move the fuck on. Though Wild Flag still has a sound rooted in the Olympia-meets-Chapel-Hill-by-way-of-Fugazi guitar/drums method, it’s freed from the Corin Tucker vocals, and that would be refreshing even if Brownstein’s vocals weren’t far more enervating, full of energy and screaming anger and dramatic, emotional crashes. Brownstein was once in Excuse 17, one of the best bands to come out of Riot Grrrl, and I feel she brings some of that energy to Wild Flag. It’s a pity that she had to share the microphone with Mary Timony, whose vocals were only a fraction of as cool as Brownstein’s. Even she knew it.

The Hives, on the main stage, had no reservations at all about their ability to rock. Visually, their gig was all class and energy. They started in top hat and tails, gradually shedding components of their outfits as they played, their backdrop of a crazed man with strings coming from his fingers making them look like marionettes. I’d interviewed some of them earlier in the day, and the difference between their private conversational tone and their public persona was pretty vast—it seems unfathomable that the quiet Swedes I cornered in the back of the press tent could be the same guys ending their set with the explosive “Tick Tick Boom!”

At the Drive-In, by comparison, were actually less frenetic and energetic. That may come as quite a surprise if you’ve heard both bands’ recordings, and it’s not as though At the Drive-In was just going through the motions—they were putting as much energy into things as they ever had, fully regressing from the prog of Mars Volta back into their hard-edged punk rock youngster selves. But maybe the venue was just too big for a band of their stature. The only folks who really got the full brunt of the show were the poor photographers, as singer Cedric Bixler-Zavala dived straight into them, nearly breaking a camera or three and causing quite a few “don’t quote me” conversations in the press tent later.

And it was there in the press tent that I started sensing people all around me saddling up, preparing for the closing headliner of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog. And suddenly I became aware that a phenomenon was about to transpire, something that would be talked about by millions, and yet which we all knew was going to be a bit silly, the way anything surrounding Snoop Dog has always been and will always be.

We had to wait a bit first for Florence & the Machine to finish—from the VIP section, I could see them at the Outdoor stage, way off in the distance, doing everything in their power to keep their audience from wandering off to the main stage early: fireworks, explosions, shimmering lights, confetti… I would have sauntered over to check it out, but the lines both in and out of the VIP section’s fenced-in internment camp were longer than the list of atrocities committed by the Turks in 1915. And so I was with my white brethren (really, the VIP section was more Caucasian than the Ural mountains), stage right, when Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog stepped onto the stage.

And immediately it was 20 years ago, and we were transported to a time when our minds were on our money and our money was on our minds. Laid back? Not really—these two cats were in top form, with tons of energy, and, oddly, a couple of live drummers in back of them to help bring the beats home.

And it was kind of like a Vegas review, a showcase of the last 20 years of the careers of these two pivotal gangsta artists. They ran through so many hits, hitting up a great verse and chorus before promptly moving on to the next, and constantly shouting out praises to L.A., the LBC, and Death Row records, which was a tiny bit odd to me considering that last I checked, Snoop Dogg still blames Suge Knight for the death of Tupac Shakur.

And oh, Tupac… yes, as the world knows already knows by now, there was a holographic image of Tupac Shakur on the main Coachella stage, sparring with Snoop and giving a shout-out to the actual “Coachella” crowd, that word no doubt compiled together from 100% Shakur phonemes of the past. It may be 50 year old technology (you’ve seen the Haunted Mansion Ride, right?), but I will say that the image actually fooled me: I thought the person on stage was a real guy who had been CGI’d for the big screens, until I finally realized there was a slight 2-D slant to the stage Tupac from my angle—“oh, I see, he’s being projected onto glass.” On the big screen, they introduced him with a close-up of his “Thug Life” tattooed chest, then zoomed out to reveal his shirtless, do-ragged body wearing khakis and boots and moving carefully, like one of the CGI monsters in an Ice Cube movie (really, wouldn’t that real-life reconciliation have been far more impressive than this CGI behemoth?). He did a couple songs, I believe “California Love” being one of them, and then disintegrated into the ether, like the mummy turning into sand to go attack Brendan Fraser at a future concert.

And who can say this was a misplaced move on Dre’s part? Though Dre’s imprint on hip hop was major, and indelible, his moment is over, and this whole concert was a nostalgia trip from the first recycled beat to the last. And even Shakur’s legacy has already been yanked and stretched across  8 posthumous albums (one where he even raps with the actor who played Biggie Smalls in a biopic), so at this point, there’s no integrity left for this holographic perversion to violate. Even if Shakur’s family had been upset by the resurrection of their dead child (and according to the press, they LOVED it), Shakur was a convicted, unrepentant rapist, so fuck him—I’m glad his image will live on in the pantheon of reanimated brands alongside Colonel Sanders and John Lennon in Forrest Gump.

But I was far more impressed with the real guest stars, who filtered in and out like a This Was Your Life montage the Rat Pack might have put together, so fast I couldn’t identify all of them: Wiz Khalifa, who shared a comically giant fake joint with Snoop on stage, then Kendrick Lamar, and 50 Cent, who appeared on stage in a hail of sonic gunfire the way Buffalo Bill Cody might have 130 years ago—though his biggest hit was “In Da Club,” not exactly a G Thang. Warren G showed up too, and Eminem, who laid down some of the tightest rhymes all night on “Forgot about Dre”—though Dre made that come out hokey, too, by scripting a fake “Hey, I’m leaving,” “Whoa, you can’t leave yet!” “I gotta go,” “No stay!” conversation with Eminem to lead into “Till I Collapse,” with a tribute to Nate Dogg.

Clearly, it was Nate Dogg, not Shakur, whose death was mourned the most by concert goers, even in my Aryan VIP area. Nate did get a tribute in the form of some yearbook-esque memorial photos on the big screens of Nate with a super-young looking Snoop, and a rendition of Snoop’s raunchy “Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” somehow felt poignant, even during the lyrics about ball sucking.

Really, the show reminded me how much Dre had turned the gangsta genre on its head, taking the violent, grittier-than-real-life lyrics of N.W.A. and morphing them into party jams, of which there were plenty this evening: “Gin and Juice,” “What’s My Name,” “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang,” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” which was accompanied by video footage of an amazingly big-assed woman (with her head out of frame, ala R. Crumb) squatting and shaking her boobs. Actually, my favorite song may have been Wiz Khalifa’s “Young, Wild and Free”: “So what if we get drunk? So what if we smoke weed? We’re just having fun…”

It was the perfect sentiment for Coachella. And no shabby ghost could spoil the fun, not even after I stayed too late at the press tent and had to walk through the shambling, actively deconstructing Coachella grounds on my own, a ghoul in the dark, as monstrous trash trucks vacuumed yakisoba noodle dishes and $11 drink cups into their giant hoses.

The party was crumbling around me, and I would have a whole hour of traffic just to get to the 10 freeway. But the walk back to the car gave me some time to reflect over the weekend. And do you want my vote? Despite the exhaustion, and the rain, and the heat and the cold, and the expensive drinks, and Greg Ginn’s horrible performance, and the increasing nasty security measures, and the lines, I would still come back and do it again. I envision myself doing whatever it takes to cover Coachella again next year, even if it means stepping on some ghosts.

-D. M. Collins