Day one of Coachella 2014 was filled with a bevy of music’s best, brightest and most revered. Day two of the grand champion of American music festivals surpassed the first day in every way save the spectacle that was OutKast’s first concert in 13 years. This day’s bill was packed. Packed on the level of where it was almost impossible to see the heavy hitters without literally running around for seven hours straight without stopping for a dinner break. The talent quality was as high as it could be hoped for, but unlike the sweltering heat of day one, day two had a unique problem seldom seen in all of Coachella’s history: extreme wind. As those who drive east from Los Angeles know seeing the windmill fields, much of the high desert around the Coachella Valley has a propensity for powerful windy spurts. This day was pleasantly cooler than yesterday, but the wind not only rocked every standing piece of architecture; it also kicked up enough dust to choke the audience into submission.
This day appeared to cement a notion building about the festival while attending these last three years: it’s not a diehard music fan’s festival anymore. No, those many years droves of practically obsessed music fans were what kept this festival going are gone. There was a time when the Pixies playing this festival (staggering to remember that was a decade ago) had the eyes of nearly every fan present while they slayed on the main stage. This year, the legends of the alt rock genre had roughly half the size crowd newcomer Lorde had, and maybe even less than one third of the audience that top 40 hit machine Pharrell Williams did. Not convinced? Muse is a giant of rock and roll. Quite famously, they recently sold out three shows at the massive L.A. arena the STAPLES Center. Depending on how the house was dressed, that means they roughly sold 45,000 tickets on the strength of their own popularity. Ten years ago the band played to an appropriately modest crowd in the middle of the day on the main stage of Coachella 2004. Four years ago they had a giant crowd for their first headlining slot at this festival, a placement known then as confirmation of Muse’s ascendency to the pillar of music business, evolving into an arena-success band. Tonight, competing with Pharrell Williams, Darkside and Skrillex, they had less than half of the crowd they had four years ago. Wait… what??? How is that possible at a festival that’s sold out?
It’s simple. The paradigm of the music fan buying tickets for this event has changed. It’s no longer us awkward music obsessive’s chasing our cult heroes, reuniting legends and the progressive movers and shakers redefining genre and form. No. Now it’s the cool kids. Party people and rabble rousers. Hit lovers and people angry about wanting to have fun. A quick look at today’s performances showed that heritage acts, alt country, folk or hard rock were not driving the lion’s share of the festival’s business. Instead, it’s mega pop, dance confections, vaguely electro alt music and pop 40 mega stars. The secret is out folks. Our little festival that could has the world’s attention and the cool kids and the celebrities they love all want to get in on the action. It cuts both ways as true popularity can be a great equalizer when put together in brutal honesty. The music biz has long thrived on running the “perception” of popularity even when it’s not there. Hard data shows all kinds of surprises over what the real draw an act may have.
Pharrell Williams boasted the day’s biggest crowd. Unsurprising given that in the past year alone he holds to his name production or collaboration on no fewer than five massive hits. Opening with one, his collaboration with Daft Punk from Random Access Memories “Lose Yourself to Dance,” Pharrell came out adorning his infamous Arby’s tall hat that he first wore at this year’s Grammy awards and flanked by a giant troupe of musicians and backing dancers. Before anyone gets too excited, no, Daft Punk did not show up as a part of this set. The set mutated from a series of his best solo tracks, most memorable collaborations and high-profile guest appearances. Particular highlights on his own were N.E.R.D.’s “She Wants to Move,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot” and set closer “Happy.” On the guest side, Busta Rhymes, Nelly and Gwen Stefani all showed up. Nelly did a small portion of his infectious “Hot in Herre” and Stefani did her hilarious and unforgettable “Hollaback Girl” while the audience joyfully sang along with, “The shit is bananas / b-a-n-a-n-a-s.”
In spite of the smaller crowd, Muse played with as much pitch-perfect precision and ferocity as they ever do. The major difference was added component of theatricality. Actors appeared occasionally satirizing corporate greed. Opener “Stockholm Syndrome” for example, featured a woman in business attire literally drinking gasoline straight from a gas pump, and ultimately choking and dying from it. Later, an older business man appeared mid stage tearing up money and throwing into the crowd. Anti corporate messages aside, the band did a solid job mixing in material from throughout their career. Both fan favorites “Hysteria” and “Time is Running Out” were performed, as well as “Resistance,” “Starlight” and “Plug in Baby.” As we reported on earlier this week, the group again covered Nirvana’s “Lithium” in tribute to the anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. “Lithium” seems to bare little connection to the immaculate escalation Muse is famous for—Cobain was decidedly a simplistic minimalist—yet, the poetic verse and the almost wordless chorus sounded effortless appropriate in their hands. Following the encore break, the band finished off with “Uprising” and “Knights of Cydonia.”
The day featured a knockout series of young talent all in succession, one almost more impressive than the last. Washed Out was up first, taking what was in band leader Ernest Greene’s early days referred to commonly by bloggers and journos as “chillwave” and expanding naturally into a smoothed-out electro dance. Greene effortlessly led the group, sporadically playing some melodies on a keyboard center stage. “Get Up” and “New Theory” were lively and fun without being too corny. Think “Toro y Moi” with a little less funk and you’d be about where this falls.
Warpaint rendered an assortment of alternative music styles with a stunning set at the Mojave Tent. The four-piece group, touring behind their stellar recent, self-titled album, shows every bit of promise and potential. On the surface it may appear as four girls just having fun, but all the necessary pieces are present to make this band a juggernaut. The rhythm section of Jenny Lee Lindberg on bass and Stella Mozgawa on drums is remarkably tight and thick in the mix. Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman (both alternating between guitars and keyboards) pepper the melody with minimalist melodies, never choking off the exceptional groove Lindberg and Mozgawa carve out. Kokal, Wayman and Lindberg all take turns on lead vocals, sometimes in the same song. Each has a unique voice and adds their own color to the arrangements. The melodies almost seem reductive, subtracting out filler until they are at their minimalist best. There’s nothing but potential here, and let’s hope that the band stays this exact same lineup as it is now.
Future Islands might be the most unlikely band to be on the verge of blowing up in recent memory. The band eschews guitars in favor of simply bass, keyboards and drums. The band’s non-singing members William Cashion and Gerrit Welmers may stand and perform pretty stoically, but lead singer Samuel Herring is either aloof and mad, or brilliant and confident in an unnerving way. His showmanship is a lot less pandering and much more charismatic in nature. He sings, bumps and bobs his way through each song, like an inflatable clown without a spine, grooving to the band’s chipper synth pop as if he were hearing two different songs in his head. He occasionally turns the cooed words into a death metal growl and seems amazingly in his element and comfortable. It works like a charm too, as by the half way mark the entire audience is dancing and cheering. Herring has worked his charms on the fans and won them over completely.
Later, Sleigh Bells did what they do best, unleashing a auditory assault that was both cathartic and fun. As they did at their fantastic set at SXSW this year, the band’s two main members Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss hold nothing back, putting every inch of their enthusiasm and energy into each riff, shout and melody. “Demons” killed with arena metal fury, “You Don’t Get Me Twice” was a sinister spot of sexualized power and “Infinity Guitars” had the crowd bouncing in manic glee. Most impressively was the high-octane finale of “A/B Machines” with it’s infectious call of, “Got my A machines on the table / Got my B machines in the drawer.”
Breakout international superstar Lorde also gathered a gigantic crowd over at the Outdoor Theatre, taking her minimalist electro pop to quite possibly its biggest audience ever. The only difficulty was that this set just should’ve been at the main stage. Given the unbelievable success of her international hit “Royals,” it’s expected there would be a larger crowd for her set, but a good portion of the crowd was almost a mile away from the stage. Given the distance, and the fact that the video monitors were not raised up (most likely due to the wind) it was near impossible to see her or what she was doing onstage. What’s worse, after taking a few breaks to explain the significance of playing Coachella for her, literally right at the moment that the opening thrums of “Royals” began, Foster the People loudly began their set over at the main stage, drowning out a good portion of her performance.
Queens of the Stone Age did a great job in their main stage set as well. The alternated between choice cuts from …Like Clockwork (“If I Had a Tail,” “I Sat By the Ocean” and “Vampyre of Time and Memory”) rarities (“Wanna Make it Wit Chu” and “In My Head”) and early hits (“Go With the Flow” and “Song for the Dead”).
Earlier in the day Scotland’s Chvrches did a pleasing set of soothing and enveloping electro pop. Nothing too daring about it, but lead singer Lauren Mayberry’s voice floats on the atmospherics at just the right place.
Julian Casablancas played as well today with his project Julian Casablancas + The Voidz. It might be cruel to say, but this project is utter garbage. Lord only knows what Casablancas is thinking as this music is a mess of hard rock, electro noise and alt pop. Sure to alienate fans hoping for the garage rock he’s famous for.
All photos by Sharon Alagna