Here’s the tl;dr version of this story:
It’s starts like this: Coachella 2015’s first day was lackluster, filled with mediocre bands lacking the excellent quality the festival is known for.
It ends like this: A bird says, “Poo-tee-weet?”
Coachella 2015’s first day was lackluster, filled with mediocre bands lacking the excellent quality the festival
is known for.
All photography by Owen Ela for mxdwn.com
It’s been a long road for Coachella Music Festival. From the auspicious beginnings where both Rage Against the Machine and Tool headlined, to the year that wasn’t, and then on to the meteoric rise catapulted by career-making sets by Radiohead and Daft Punk. Well for those keeping score, Daft Punk’s genre-defining set happened literally nine years ago. It feels like yesterday, but nine years is an eternity when it comes to a festival like this. Many cried foul several years ago when the climate of the festival changed, each year a bigger sellout and a seemingly smaller payoff. Two years back, Blur and The Stone Roses became two of the least impressive headliners in Coachella history (though of course, both gargantuan legends across the pond). Last year, OutKast returned with a strong finish to each weekend, but the attending public of the fest changed in a way that nobody would have anticipated years back. Instead of diehard music fans, scrambling over each other to see an exciting reunion or the next big thing in alternative music, the fest had become overrun with party people, spring breakers and ultimately mega pop fans just looking to be cool. This led to some of the more curious crowds at sets in the festival’s history. Giants like The Replacements, The Afghan Whigs and even Neko Case saw practically no one show up for their sets. This year—at least so far—it hasn’t quite been that bad, but the environment is still one where the EDM fans flocking to the Sahara Tent are the majority in attendance. This isn’t your Coachella festival any more folks. It’s your niece and nephew’s. Beyond that, the first day of Coachella 2015 plainly just failed to deliver on anything up to the standard that made the festival famous. Some acts were smart booking choices, but the actual end result nestled in a fest of fans craving pop hooks or four-to-the-floor mania fell flat with small attendance.
Early on in the day, rockabilly legend The Reverend Horton Heat had an early set at the Mojave Tent. This was a fun start to the day, but like Charles Bradley (who we’ll touch on later), The Rev really begs for a crowd that’s hanging on his every word and guitar strum. Songs like “Smell of Gasoline” and “The Devil’s Chasing” were wicked pscychobilly-infused fun, but most of this crowd was likely barely aware of this group’s now 25-year career.
First demonstrating a coincidental trend that would carry through most of the day’s acts was Cloud Nothings. Hailing from Cleveland, the trio worked hard to weave a grunge-y texture throughout all their song. In particular, “No Future / No Past” wove a dirge-y pace reminiscent of Nirvana’s “Big Long Now.”
Action Bronson and Lil B split the difference between extreme rap oddity in their respective sets at the main stage and the Outdoor Theatre. Action Bronson spent most of his time rapping about the various things he’s known for: weed, women and food. He’s not without some degree of charisma, but lines like, “Why you gotta act like a bitch when I’m with you baby?” should be enough to make any self-respecting woman ponder how appropriate that is.
Over at the Outdoor Theatre, Lil B (The Based God) did a by-the-numbers rap set that tiptoed on the line between enthusiastic and completely incomprehensible. It was by-the-numbers in that nearly every note or instrument was being played via computer, and even Lil B’s voice was present in the mix. So, Lil B was basically rapping over the completed songs…. er… at least most of the time he was. The rest of his set he spouted completely bizarre gibberish. For example, “What a beautiful time to be alive! I know Lil is a legend.” Or better yet, “Any Lil B merch you gotta come to me. Anything else ain’t legit. Everybody gotta have original thoughts and support each other. R.I.P. A$AP Yams.” O-kay.
Somewhat criminally, Charles Bradley’s main stage set featured a paltry crowd for the immense heart, talent and soul he puts into every show. Avid mxdwn fans will remember, that Charles Bradley practically owned SXSW this year with a soul bearing set. Indicative of the crowd here though, this featured only a modest gathering at the main stage while mega pop like Kimbra, Kiesza and Lykki Li packed tents to overflowing. Bradley played like he always does though, like he was singing for his very life. “In You (I Found A Love),” “Strictly Reserved For You” and “Confusion” were stellar standouts in the mid-afternoon sun.
Kimbra and Kiesza furthered the trend that began last year with mega pop shining brighter than any of the hip indie acts. Kimbra took the artier side of pop, bounding around the stage gleefully while singing “90’s Music” and “Nobody But You.”
Kiesza, on the other hand, took the more conventional mainstream approach, decking herself out with stylish clothes and having choreographed backup dancers with her the whole time. “Losin’ My Mind” and “Vietnam” found the first completely packed stage of the festival. Later, Kiesza was joined by Joey Badass for a song.
Coachella often has a few high-profile reunions. There’s always an act or two that was incredible twenty years back that the fest has lured back into existence. The closest thing to that the festival had this year was the reunion of Brit shoegaze legends Ride. Sadly, the beloved band found themselves with a fraction of the crowd they deserved. Here, Ride expertly used guitar effects to create a sonic texture that warmed each song beyond any conventional framework. Shoegaze may be an inappropriate label for the band, as really what they had here was something much more. “Taste,” “Black Nite Crash” and “Dreams Burn Down,” all delivered powerfully on the band’s immense reputation.
Shortly after, The War on Drugs concocted a different kind of texture. One, perhaps closer to a Bruce Springsteen meets indie rock vibe. Keyboards, saxophone and guitar all melded together along with Adam Granduciel’s delay-ridden vocals to build an enveloping tapestry. The band made headlines in 2014 when their last album Lost in the Dream topped many critics’ year-end lists. Here, songs like “An Ocean in the Waves” and “Burning” created a pleasant sundown atmosphere.
Like Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires earlier, Brittany Howard fronted group Alabama Shakes fused rock and soul to amazing results. Howard shrieks and wails like an uncaged wolf, snarling lines like, “Don’t wanna fight no more” and “I can try to make it right. Gimme all your love” with the force and sincerity of any ten people combined.
Surprisingly, Lykke Li might have had the most triumphant performance and attendance of any act on day 1. Where often Lykke Li aims for high fashion and a diva-ish presentation, this was a bit more subdued, Li wearing a sparkly full-suit. Songs like “Gunshot” and “Never Gonna Love Again” had the crowd fully engaged throughout singing along with each line.
One of two bizarre heritage acts booked for this year’s event, 70’s pop rock titans Steely Dan had a late evening set at the Outdoor Theatre. Singer/guitar player Walter Becker quipped how they were glad to be playing the festival adding, “There was some financials considerations. We’re not gonna deny that. We’re still here. We still got it. If you like it come and get it.” This was a whole different type of texture from the other acts on the day; One perfected in the 70’s and long forgotten by most of the music movements that have happened since. This was an elaborate combination of pop, fusion, jazz and R&B driven by the band’s two primary remaining members Becker and keyboardist/singer Donald Fagen fronting a 12-piece band. Songs like “Aja” and “Show Biz Kids” went for long walks in instrumental interludes, both extended solos and opportunities to make their horn section the centerpiece.
Fitting given AC/DC’s headlining slot, Australian psych rockers Tame Impala had the penultimate main stage performance. The band does a solid job of weaving their own kind of psychedelic texture, but this set belied what a good portion of the music industry is about to try to convince you, that their upcoming album Currents is going to be a really big deal. A super small crowd was there to see them at the main stage (relatively speaking) and there really wasn’t any buzz on their performance in the air supply leading into this. “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Backwards” were fun and evocative looks at what this band is capable of, but honestly, they should not have been this high up on the bill.
Lastly, AC/DC closed out the night. If you’re reading this and are a bit confused, that’s a natural and understandable reaction. For hard rock, AC/DC are undeniable legends, but for a predominantly indie festival like Coachella, this is a stretch far beyond Paul McCartney or even Roger Waters. Truly doesn’t feel like this band really makes any sense at Coachella at all. The group has fallen on hard times lately. Co-founder Malcolm Young understandably had to leave the group due to health concerns, and longtime drummer has found himself in immense legal trouble for a variety of reason of late (and as such has been at least temporarily replaced by Chris Slade). Their most recent album Rock or Bust hasn’t been a stellar success either. At least this curiosity of a booking choice was met with an enthusiastic crowd. AC/DC does have about ten of the biggest hit rock singles in history to their credit.
The band sounds great to their credit, and Angus Young still plays and hops like a maniac fireball. “Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap,” “Thunderstruck” and “Back in Black” had the crowd excited and singing along. Even super scenester girls could be seen playing air guitar in some parts. However, one too many songs from their latest album seriously hampered the flow of the set. With a crowd largely unfamiliar with their recent output, it would’ve been wise to stick to their hits almost entirely. By the time the group played recent single “Play Ball” nearly half the crowd left. So, nearly half the crowd that showed up initially was gone by the time the group got to “You Shook Me All Night Long,” “T.N.T.” and “Highway to Hell.” The band deserves all the credit in the world for their long and storied career, but this all just doesn’t add up. Who benefits from this? What does it all amount to? A festival that doesn’t need to impress anyone trying to book someone huge to say they could? A band on the waning years of their career desperate to try to prove they’re still credible? Fans being lazy indulging programming that doesn’t speak to their world? Was it so long ago that Portishead, Daft Punk, Arcade Fire, Kanye West, Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Bjork, Rage Against the Machine, Tool and so many, many more headlined this festival and showed the world what the word “brilliant” really means?
As the throngs departed and high winds started to sweep the desert landscape a bird says, “Poo-tee-weet?”
All photography by Owen Ela for mxdwn.com