(photo: Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. The band performed on the Coachella Stage.)
One of the best things about living in Los Angeles—and you really have to look at times—is its proximity to the desert. High desert, low desert, middle desert—each has its own unique beauty and charm. And it’s close; in just about two hours, you leave the city, smog, and suburban sprawl as you gradually enter wide-open ranges of stark rock and scrubby plant life. Past Riverside, through a smattering of gigantic windmills that rise above the landscape like a scene out of War of the Worlds, and into a community comprised mostly of golf-playing retirees, the freeway takes you directly to Indio, where the Coachella Arts and Music Festival takes place every spring. The populace changed dramatically for the weekend (like it has every year since 1999), as an influx of indie rockers, nerds, jocks, cowboy-hat wearing silicone “beauties,” and alterna-teens took over the desert once again.
Fortunately, the heat wasn’t as stifling as it has been in recent years, as the temperature hovered somewhere under 90 degrees throughout the day. As night fell, the wind kicked up on the tail of a majestic sunset and it got downright chilly, as it tends to at night in the desert. Although it didn’t sell out, Coachella was packed to the gills again this year. Almost every band that played, whether in a tent or on an outdoor stage, faced enormous crowds. People criss-crossed and jumped around from one artist to the next, trying to consume as much as possible.
What follows is my personal trajectory, which probably intersected, mimicked, and went in completely opposite directions from thousands of others who attended.
The day began with Boom Bip in the Gobi Tent. Even at this early hour, as Bryan Hollan and company were one of the first acts to perform, the crowd inside the tent was shoulder-to-shoulder. Backed by a full band, Hollan’s hip-hop/post-rock blend drew an incredibly enthusiastic response from the early arrivers. Buck 65 seemed like a perfect chaser, so I headed over to the Coachella Stage, where he began by expressing his surprise at receiving main-stage placement. This was truly a solo act, as he triggered his beats, scratched and rapped with no assistance, no hype-men—nothing but two turntables and a microphone. Unfortunately, Buck’s rhymes and flow are more emo than Slug rapping over a Mineral backbeat, and after about 15 minutes, I’d had enough. It was off to the Outdoor Theatre to catch Nic Armstrong and The Thieves, bluesy-rock newcomers full of energy but short on awesomeness. I grabbed a $7 beer, which for the price I assumed was going to be the best I’d ever tasted. It wasn’t.
Radio 4 was on next in the Mojave Tent. It was only 2:30 p.m. but it was dark, hot and sweaty in there. Fortunately, the band’s reputation for ineptitude didn’t fully come to fruition, and for all its half-assed, limp, dance-punk attitude, these boys actually put on a fairly good show. M83 would be on soon, but in the meantime Canada’s k-os would have to suffice. The Gobi Tent was ridiculously packed for his performance, which was backed by a live band. The crowd voraciously ate up everything lyric he spit, but sometimes this kind of über-feel-good conscious rap can get a little tiresome. Fortunately, M83 moved the crowd, providing a perfect soundtrack to the sun-speckled desert mountains that glowing behind them as they played. The music—a sonic clone of a digital version of Mogwai—floated through the air, and happy faces turned toward the aural bliss.
The next two hours blurred by as The Kills brought sex and style to their show but were slightly boring with their White Stripes and Karen O impersonations. Keane churned out flaccid piano rock on the Coachella Stage and Jean Grae spit attitude and venom back into the Gobi Tent after a delayed start due to technical difficulties.
When Wilco took the Coachella Stage, Jeff Tweedy confessed, “We were supposed to be here last year, but I was too f---ed up. I feel better now.” The crowd roared in approval and empathy as the band ably handled selections drawing heavily from A Ghost is Born, Tweedy’s not-so-subtle self-deprecation floating along in the sunset. A quick run back to the Mojave Tent brought a typically fantastic show from MF Doom, wife and kid lingering at the back of the stage as rhymes were blazed and beats bombarded ear drums. This would be the last “tent” show I’d attend for the night, and back to the Coachella Stage I went, or as close as I dared to get, as Weezer mixed old standbys with weaker new material in the gathering darkness.
Sage Francis was letting loose with the bombast in the distance, but it would be impossible to get there without watching the robot wars show taking place on the way. Several crushed shopping carts later, and the bearded MC was putting on what was the surprise hit of the night. Skills, personality, amazing beats—this was not your typical Anticon MC. Unfortunately, Bauhaus was gearing up, so Sage was left behind for a quick jaunt back to the Coachella Stage. Opening with “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” frontman Peter Murphy was suspended upside down over the stage like a vampire bat in a black, one-piece, goth unitard. Things were definitely getting weird. Murphy’s cryptic message to the crowd at the end of the set: “You can now say that you were there.”
It was time to clear the head, and after enduring what seemed like endless emotive jamming from Mercury Rev, Spoon took the stage of the Outdoor Theatre. Unfortunately, their set, too, was plagued by technical problems, but no piece of malfunctioning equipment could keep Britt Daniels’ songwriting down. Filling out spare tunes like “Small Stakes” with full instrumentation sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but what a great way to end the night.
After only a half-hour search for my car (parking lots sure look different at night), I was speeding away through the desert, ready for a hot shower. The ringing in my ears would last all night, but it was worth it.