Coachella 2013 is over. What did we learn? That this year’s festival is a festival without headliners. It’s a festival without headliners, and it didn’t matter one bit. The cardinal rule of any festival is that the top line of the bill needs to represent the largest drawing act. Someone sensational that people can’t possibly avoid. Blur, Phoenix and the Red Hot Chili Peppers formally topped the bill of this year’s festival, but you’d be lucky to find a massive congregation of fans that were here for any of them. They all represent a sizable fan base, but none have them the shock and awe the usual Coachella headliners add to the event. Today, like day 2 and day 1, it wasn’t the measure of this festival’s success. There were so many good bands happening on every stage, the headliners were rendered all but irrelevant.
Today’s real winner was the mega pop power of Vampire Weekend. The four-piece band began as something of an Internet lark and quickly developed into a titan of the modern indie sphere. Last time they played at Coachella they were on a late-evening spot at the Outdoor Theatre. This year, they had the choice sundown slot on the main stage, and they made good use of it. With the quality of this performance, one more hit album like their first two, and their role headlining festivals like this is assured. “Cousins” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” started things off strong, the gigantic crowd present thrilled to sing along. Wandering through the crowd, groups of friends were seen happily dancing (and perhaps even prancing) along. “Holiday” and “Oxford Comma” kept that playful spirit alive (the latter with its choice lyric “Why would you lie about anything at all?”). They ended on “Giving Up the Gun” and “Walcott,” both of which soothing and enjoyable numbers with a relatively higher pace.
Not too long later on the main stage Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds went for the throat with a set that considerably dialed up the volume and intensity on material both new and old. Perhaps most impressive was the set’s beginning number of “Jubilee Street.” Cave was joined by a choir made up of a large contingent of children from Flea’s Silverlake Conservatory of Music. The song starts innocuously enough; a snaking, slithering clean guitar riff sets the tone. Cave struts angrily around the stage posing and commanding, hammering out each line like his life (or at the least the lives of the song’s characters) depended on his successful rendering of the song. A massively heavy “Deanna” followed that opening. Then, the band dropped an extended “Stagger Lee” which provided Cave the opportunity to reach over the guardrail to drive diehard fans crazy. “The Mercy Seat” was sped up considerably as well. The set ended on the title track of the group’s new album, “Push the Sky Away.” It was a fitting and resonant conclusion to a stellar set from a serious artist.
New sensations The Lumineers also did a great job on the main stage earlier in the day. On just song 2 of their set, lead singer/guitar player Wesley Schultz demanded the crowd join them on a singalong, prompting them to join in on the words, “I ain’t nobody’s problem but my own.” Right after that, they unleashed their greatest weapon in their mega hit, “Ho Hey.” By that alone they had the crowd, fans everywhere singing “I belong to you / You belong to me / You’re my sweetheart.”
Amidst a slew of other down-home quality folk, they also did a solid cover of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” Far on the other end of the musical map, Vancouver native Grimes lived up to her hype, weaving infectious electronics with smooth, high-pitched vocals. For the uninitiated, Grimes creates her beats, loops and backing music through an array of samplers and keyboards mounted on a pedestal in front of her. She wisely takes moments when the groove is locked to step out in front of the platform, sing her heart out and dance enthusiastically. It’s hard to know where one piece ends and the other begins, but Grimes has serious skills making music both experimental and rewarding.
Those enamored by the Oscar-winning film Searching for Sugar Man were thrilled to see the subject of that film, the man himself, Sixto Rodriguez performing at the Gobi Tent at Coachella. Guided on stage by what appeared to be his family, the cheer from the crowd on hand was something to witness. Rodriguez played calmly, quietly singing his seminal songs “I Wonder” and “Sugar Man.” Rodriguez has a brilliant intonation and vocal timbre, but the real problem here was extreme audio dissonance caused by the relatively close and overly loud Do Lab stage. It was a challenge even at a mid-range proximity to fully enjoy the quiet, humble nuance Rodriguez brings to his music. Hard to fault anyone completely–it is a loud rock festival after all–but it has to be considered a shame to have such a rare , unique talent and not be able to create and environment where people can fully enjoy what he’s capable of.
James Blake performed utilizing a variant approach to minimalist composition compared to last night’s full-on romance-inspired ethereal haze. Blake sat at a trio of keyboards accompanied by two additional players. One alternated between keys and guitars, the other played predominantly electronic drums. The three of them combined wove undulating segments together, Blake himself sampling, looping and re-sampling his voice making it another stitch in their sonic fabric. The compelling performance was enough to prove Blake has achieved a worthy formula at the least. Wu-Tang Clan mastermind RZA joined Blake for a song off his new album near the end of the set, “Take a Fall For Me.”
Elsewhere over the course of the day, Pretty Lights played a late evening set at the Outdoor Theatre. Mounted on a 15-foot illuminated riser, this was derivative and uninspired drivel, serving neither to further the cause of the successful modern electro craze or the crowd gathered to see him play.
Wu-Tang Clan was somewhat incorrectly placed at the Outdoor Theatre stage. The group had the largest crowd of perhaps the whole weekend, far, far more than the area at that stage can easily accommodate. This should’ve been at the main stage, same as Jurassic 5 on Friday night. Here the band incorporation a miniature orchestra and even a conductor to pull their complex arrangements live.
British singer Jessie Ware played a decent set early on at the Mojave Tent, coaxing the audience into some mild dancing while wisely engaging fans wherever she could.
Thee Oh Sees slammed through an even earlier set, banging out keyboard lines and guitar riffs both with the fury and menace of early Big Black though with a greater affinity for punk rock style.
Recent electro pop buzz band Tanlines did an okay job creating a fun, danceable confection, but failed to match the focused artist Grimes did on the same stage just an hour earlier.
All photos by Raymond Flotat