There is nothing new to say.When it comes to music, critics might offer up the mournful cry that performers have very little fresh ground to cover. It seems all we can hope for is to follow existing paths, be they well-traveled or unbeaten, and discover a friendly muse somewhere among them.
It’s much the same with the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the heir apparent to Lollapalooza as the gold standard of America’s slowly maturing mega-concert scene. Hipsters claim that the 2004 bill — the Cure and Flaming Lips resurgent, Kraftwerk and the Pixies reformed — was the best yet, unable to be topped in terms of performance quality and sheer street cred.
Maybe so, but as with most games of chance, you can’t win if you don’t play. The players onstage took the chance to induce a positive response in 90 minutes or less. The fans took their chances by braving California’s desert sun to see which paths Coachella would show them in 2005. The opportunity for revelation wasn’t overwhelming, but it was there nevertheless.
Intelligent hip-hop represented a little less than 10 percent of all acts at this year’s festival. This could have been a blessing or a curse; hip-hop performed live always treads a fine line between being messy or artful.
When it plays out as the former, you get the reunion of master lyricists Talib Kweli and Mos Def. A few too many call-and-response gimmicks speak to gaps in a repertoire or a freestyle flow. This and their rhyming false starts could probably be explained away by their years-long separation, but their DJs’ early gaffes could not. Even with smooth solo efforts like Kweli’s “I Try” and duets like “Astronomy,” the stutter-steps in this pacing made them come across as mere black stars instead of Black Star.
When it takes the latter shape, you end up with U.K. rapper Roots Manuva. His loping, hang-onto-the-beat-for-dear-life delivery and thick cockney accent make his material a bit difficult to navigate. But his work was tireless and smooth — 16 songs in 50 minutes, including powerful tracks like “Sinny Sin Sins,” “Witness (1 Love),” the naughty “Doogoo Machine,” and a Coachella-themed freestyle. Combined with his genuine happy-to-be-here attitude, fans who stuck with Roots Manuva were rewarded with a top-notch show.
The combo of beats and rhymes is a tough one to execute. On an individual level, you have to wonder if it is easier to master the hardware required to create hip-hop’s music than to master the body’s own circuitry for memorizing, freestyling, or convincingly delivering lyrics. The danger in this theory is that producers of trip-hop, turntablism, and other low-key electronica risk running a dime a dozen.
Luckily, Coachella’s organizers made excellent performance choices along that front. For example, Sixtoo (accompanied by fellow box jockey Mark Kelly) made thickly layered funk relaxation that swirled around the summer air, buzzing like harmless bumblebees of song. If you needed more than just a bare shade tent in which to chill out, Sixtoo’s grooves made perfect accompaniment for heads that nodded in time or nearly off to sleep.
Boom Bip, who opened up the whole thing on Day 1, brought some more edge to the table. Without a turntable in sight, Bryan Hollon led a full band skanking and eventually screaming their way through improv-heavy pieces like “The Move.” Informed as much by Sonic Youth as by Squarepusher, Boom Bip sounded far larger than their 3 or 4 instruments indicated.
Then there was Diplo, blessed by mad skills and good Coachella fortune. With photographers crawling all over him, Diplo spun mashed-up and glitched attempts to establish new relevance for older music — bleeding Outkast into Soft Cell was a high point. He also offered glimpses at the best of baile funk and his own work like “Diplo Rhythm.” Diplo’s homage to Philadelphia’s Hollertronix parties was the first big hit of Day 2.
He later pulled double duty as DJ for M.I.A., his collaborator on the well-regarded Piracy Funds Terrorism bootleg mix. (This was one of a scant few Coachella surprises, along with Common joining Black Star and Linkin Park’s Chester Bennington assisting Z-Trip.) With the largest media presence outside of the main stage and the backstage area jammed with admirers, the multicultural diva did not disappoint.
M.I.A.’s dense patois conceals compelling notes on violence and bristling sexuality. Fans of her indie-rock words and her grime-like sound packed Coachella’s Gobi tent, going so far as to crowd-surf for her. They were witness to a storming performance that included “Sunshowers, “10 Dollar,” and “Fire Fire,” Diplo’s crafty use of samples from Sanford & Son and the Eurythmics, and a three-song encore (unusual for Coachella). If anyone had a true coming-out party at this festival, it was M.I.A.
Kieran Hebdan looks like a high-schooler who hasn’t come out of his bedroom much. But as Four Tet, it sounds like his time there was spent cramming tons of interesting noises into a tiny layout of equipment. Day 1’s most curiously entertaining act, Four Tet added rhythmless scratching and heavily glitched samples to bouncy grooves, transforming dance music’s foundations into jazzy performance-art soundtracks.
DJ Marky jazzed and grooved in more conventional style, putting together a thundering mix of jungle and gabber. A few hours later and a few degrees cooler, and he might have been the talk of the techno-based Sahara tent on Day 1. That honor, however, went to the Chemical Brothers. With five albums’ worth of original material in their back pockets, the duo rewarded long-time and long-suffering fans who stuck with them instead of Coldplay’s overlapping time slot.
The Chemicals’ show was smartly and stunningly constructed. First came a set of well-known stompers (“Music Response,” “Block Rockin’ Beats”), followed by a collection of deeper cuts for true believers, including “Believe” and “Surface to Air” from Push the Button. As an encore, they used “The Private Psychedelic Reel” to pack their banks and banks of humming machinery off to bed with a goodnight kiss.
Never let it be said that older people — or, at least, people around long enough to develop some musical pedigree — can’t execute the music of the young at least as well as the young themselves.
Coachella’s dance tent will never ooze with the legend of Perry Farrell of Jane’s Addiction — here in his role as DJ Peretz, purveyor of a generally ordinary mix of house and trance. Even blind squirrels find the occasional acorn, though; Peretz similarly stumbled upon revelatory moments such as timing his needle-drop on a dubby version of Groove Armada’s “Superstylin’.”
New Order used a welcome return to the world stage to feature Bernard Sumner in full-on grumpy mode, barking out thank-yous, song titles, and threats to photographers. However, while the Pixies may have aged better, they didn’t get to thrill crowds with Joy Division songs-at-long-last (“Love Will Tear Us Apart,” “Atmosphere,” “Transmission”), power through the best of a new album (“Krafty,” “Jetstream”), or tweak bastard pop by dropping bits of Kylie Minogue into a “Blue Monday” finale.
Other artists may not be quite ready to offer their fans gold circle seating just yet, but they sure looked the part. In one of the weekend’s best small-name shows, Anthony Roman, lead singer of New York City’s Radio 4, exuded the dignified air of Scott Bakula in the very special rockâ€šÃ„Ã´nâ€šÃ„Ã´roll episode of Quantum Leap. This belied the power and positivity of his quintet, which exhorted the crowd with anthems like “Calling All Enthusiasts,” “Get Behind the Struggle,” and the brand new “Absolute Affirmation.”
Jeff Tweedy, by comparison, seemed old enough to know how to rock the entire free world, not only looking the part of Neil Young but playing it as well. His trip to rehab nixed Wilco’s Coachella gig last year, but Tweedy and company more than made up for it during an inspired set heavy on recent works like “Handshake Drugs,” “Spiders (Kidsmoke),” and “I Am Trying To Break Your Heart.” In 50 animated minutes they seemingly distilled rock and country and folk into some new, distinctly American sound.
Then there were those artists still too immature to recognize their musical roots, nor grow up and away from them. Ambulance LTD was the worst offender, a sadistically sappy Coldplay-Black Crowes hybrid not above stealing riffs from the Beatles’ “Dear Prudence.” Katie Melua simply put the “plain” in plaintive, like a Norah Jones doppleganger on guitar. Goodbye Radar showed some promise, opening Day 2 with hints of power-pop danger scattered throughout their set, but the girl-led group never quite distanced themselves from the sense that they were sonic cousins to Pat Benatar.
Some bigger bands also didn’t live up to their promise, but not for lack of trying. It is amazing that Keane can coax such a full sound from just a bunch of pianos, a drum kit, and lead singer Tom Chaplin. Even though “Can’t Stop Now” and “Everybody’s Changing” rocked a party like Journey or Chicago (consider that a serious compliment), their bigger U.S. hits “We Might As Well Be Strangers” and “Somewhere Only We Know” sounded off-key.
Technical problems ate up time and momentum during the Bravery’s first-ever festival set. They soldiered on, covering U2’s “An Cat Dubh” to fill in an early gap, before finally settling in for a raucous, equipment-climbing set highlighted by “An Honest Mistake” and “Public Service Announcement.”
Aside from being off-key during their new song “This is Such a Pity,” a problem of a different sort hampered Weezer’s performance: weirdly stereotypical rock-star moves, and not just the sly winged-W light prop hanging behind them. A nicely arranged set was delivered with only workmanlike precision, right down to fans waving bye-bye at just the right point during “Undone (The Sweater Song).” What could have been a thrilling concert turned into a mailed-in page for the Weezer script, an emo Rocky Horror Picture Show with surprisingly little emo-tion on display.
Weezer’s good but rote playing made it all the more refreshing to see Coachella acts that gave more than half a damn. Bolstered by a later time slot and a packed tent, Bloc Party lived up to the hype of their new album Silent Alarm, and played up to it as well. From the opening frenzy of “Like Eating Glass,” Kele Okereke and his bandmates delivered nervous sexual energy that would have done David Byrne proud. Yet in the midst of all that build-up, that meant Bloc Party merely met expectations.
So the best you could hope for was seeing a performer with no expectations of your own and discovering their level of interest by surprise: Ladies and gentlemen, introducing the Shout Out Louds. Day 2 found these unheralded Swedes melting their asses on the Outdoor Theatre stage just past high noon. Nevertheless, they reached out to fans by twisting vocals swiped from Robert Smith, old R.E.M. backbeats, and the occasional Graceland-era Paul Simon guitar shuffle into sweetly enjoyable boyfriend/girlfriend music. This is how the derivative can also be genuine.
Trent Reznor reached out to Coachella as well, starting Day 2’s penultimate Main Stage set with a white dress shirt and the piano piece “The Frail.” Still, a kinder, gentler Nine Inch Nails is about as kind and gentle as your resident schoolyard bully. Reznor suddenly was playing keep-away, screaming “Don’t you fucking know what you are?” at the crowd, before converting to his standard black uniform of menace for “March of the Pigs.” The band employed a few new tricks (stripped-down lighting, the Genesis multi-part suite feel of the title track from With Teeth) and some old habits (unbridled aggression towards amps, instruments, and fellow players). Overall, NIN proved they still have plenty of earth to scorch if they so choose.
Slowly but surely, it seems Coachella’s sun-scorched atmosphere is turning into the Little Festival That Could. It is a telling commentary that, following 2004’s mass cancellation of Lollapalooza dates, Perry Farrell’s pet project now apes Coachella as a single-location, two-day show. You also wonder why Coachella organizing group Goldenvoice gave approval for crews to film this year’s event for a motion picture, instead of last year’s super-hyped weekend.
Itâ€šÃ„Ã´s all about momentum and good word-of-mouth, two things Coachella has right now that few other U.S. festivals can claim. Coachella offers attendees a wide variety of attractions in a relatively short amount of time, a perfect fit in today’s culture of media made for short attention spans. With that in mind, now that the 2005 show is committed to history, memory, and film, some online fans are already handicapping 2006’s lineup.
Early hopefuls include Depeche Mode, the White Stripes, David Bowie, and Portishead. Watch this space.
All photos by Adam Blyweiss