At Coachella 2015, we’ve seen some bad acts and we’ve seen some outstanding ones. We’ve also seen the trend that the festival’s audience has skewed far towards mega pop and EDM continue unabated. Day three of the annual music festival was no different. Some acts put forth the eye-opening quality that we all crave in the event, but many of the most credible and important acts performed diligently with near-empty stages, while pop acts hardly established in the USA filled large spaces with ease. There’s no sense being shy about it; we created a monster. What was a modest alternative music experience in the desert now is a corporate juggernaut. Hordes of party people endlessly take selfies. Celebrities walk around the grounds pretending to be at the festival while paparazzi desperately try to snap shots of them. Someone with a voice as beautiful and true as Ryan Adams plays to a half-empty stage while just as many fans manically take pictures with a giant fake butterfly. A bottle of soda costs $5 and good luck finding a filling meal for less than $10. Oh yeah, all while in the desert in the baking hot sun. It used to be that people yearned for the chance to even go to this festival. It housed the stuff of mythic legends that fans the world over plunged thousands into just to be part of. Goldenvoice and AEG, their parent company, can be forgiven. Business is business after all. Businesses are in business to do bigger business, the more money that can be made, the better. 2 days quickly become 3, then 1 weekend becomes 2. Bigger. Better. Brighter. More. More. More. More. More. More.
The problem, is us. Yup. All of us. The fans that made the festival what it is, and mostly the fans that sell it out so fast every year. Our modest alternative music festival now is the stuff of mainstream mediocrity. Do the attendees know how much it mattered that it was possible for eclectic music to have a home anywhere in this country? Do they have any idea how long bands like today’s act Built to Spill have been around fighting to make each, song, album and tour matter? Do they even care, or is this all just another excuse to rage and party and shake their collective asses? Say what you will, as of course, everyone of any stylistic preference has all the right in the world to have a good time, but this festival used to mean something to us, to our music-loving community. Now this is slowly shifting into another IHEARTRADIO festival packed with saccharine confections, more assembled than born or earned. The festival this year had a litany of varied acts, but to be on the ground, you would think with some minor exceptions that the crowd here couldn’t be troubled to even take a passing look.
All photos for mxdwn by Owen Ela
Early on in the day newcomer Angel Olsen played at the Gobi Tent. Olsen is a soothing mix of indie and alt rock, anchored on her fluttery vocals. “High and Wild” and “Sweet Dreams” capped off a solid opening set.
Danish singer MØ packed the Gobi Tent a few hours later. MØ commanded the large crowd easily, dancing wildly in her own unique way (and swinging her long ponytail like a morning star all the while). “Don’t Wanna Dance” kept the excitement growing and then Swedish singer Elliphant joined her to do their collaborative song “One More.”
Later on, Animal Collective member Panda Bear (née Noah Lennox) did a solo set at the Mojave Tent. Much like previous tours from Panda Bear—and in a slightly more subdued form as his main band—the music was a rich psychedelic texture. Lennox stood center stage surrounded by a bank of sequencers, triggers and computers. A massive video wall filled the stage behind him and played a constantly undulating series of appropriately trippy visuals. The tapestry is impressive beyond all compare, but what any fan will think of this truly comes down to how you feel about the repetition employed. If you like it, you’ll find yourself in a blissful haze for the whole set. If you don’t, you’ll wonder where twenty minutes went and not be sure what you’re hearing.
Doug Martsch’s Built to Spill had a late-afternoon set at the Outdoor Theatre, and were another casualty of a practically non-existent audience. Cuts such as “Stab” and “Distopian Dream Girl” both were Built to Spill at their finest, nimbly dancing the delicate edge between angular indie rock and driving hard rock. After twenty years of stalwart albums and tours, the venerable band deserves more in terms of respect, attention and adulation.
Still riding high on their reunion from a couple of years back, Conor Oberst’s post hardcore Desaparecidos was impressive in terms of both fury and defiance. Best-known for his successful Bright Eyes band in the 00’s, Oberst here came garbed in simple apparel and headbands wrapped around his knees. A far cry from the handsome indie artist girls loved a decade back, this Oberst looked ready to throw a Molotov cocktail through a cop’s window. Sounding positively incensed on “MariKKKopa” the band punched each chord out with a hammering intensity. “Greater Omaha” closed out the set, and somehow impossibly ramped up the fervent energy even more.
The last time Jenny Lewis played Coachella solo, she played at 9:50 near the end of the evening on the Outdoor Theatre. That was in 2009. Today, on the heels of perhaps one of her biggest hits “Just One of the Guys,” she played the same stage a full 4 hours earlier while Marina and the Diamonds played the sundown set at the main stage. Hard to imagine, but Marina and the Diamonds had the larger crowd. Opening with “Just One of the Guys,” Lewis continued with excellent cuts such as “The Next Messiah” and her former band Rilo Kiley’s “With Arms Outstretched.” Not to be outdone former band mate Blake Sennett joined her for a mini-Rilo Kiley reunion on “Portions for Foxes.”
Not long later, recent tour mate Ryan Adams played at the same stage. After opening with recent single “Gimme Something Good” Adams played a slew of gorgeously rendered songs. “Let it Ride,” “Stay With Me” and “Dirty Rain” all provided the proper semi-somber backdrop for Adams’ otherworldly vocals. As usual, Adams paused to make several quips in between songs, at one point calling out to the cameramen on a giant cherry picker outside the grounds calling it a “giant transformer” and later commented on electronic music heard in the distance by saying, “It sounds like someone’s Galaga machine is malfunctioning over there.” Sadly, like so much else this weekend, the massive public art piece of a giant butterfly seemed to capture the crowd’s attention more than Adams and his band.
New York punk band Brand New were on in the early evening at the Mojave Tent and performed with a righteous vengeance. Frontman Jesse Lacey shrieked on “Degausser” and “Sowing Season (Yeah)” with an urgency that had to be experienced to be believed.
Perhaps the most criminal lack of attendance was Radiohead drummer Philip Selway’s solo set at the Gobi Tent. Little more than forty people were present for this. Admittedly, Selway is not the most famous member of the band, but anyone from a band of the level of Radiohead should draw a respectable crowd. Selway’s music, in which he mostly sings instead of playing drums, is far better than you would expect. Sonically an artful form of pop in the tradition of Peter Gabriel, his songs “Patron Saint” and “Waiting For a Sign” closed out what was a great set overall.
The night ended with two of the best examples of female fronted acts the indie world has seen in the last ten years. The first of which, St. Vincent, has had her releases ranked as #1 album of the year for mxdwn not once, but twice. On the strength of her 2014 self-titled album, St. Vincent has become the paragon of eclectic alternative music. She balances experimental tendencies with tuneful songs as infectious as they are brilliant. She opened on “Rattlesnake” and then built up the crowd’s enjoyment quickly with the funky “Digital Witness” and delicate “Cruel.”
She spoke little with the crowd on this night, instead opting to put all of her energy into a polished performance. One of the few things she did say was an indirect jab at the EDM music in abundance at the festival, stating flatly, “Welcome all you analog witnesses.” “Every Tear Disappears” featured her supremely understated and deft fretwork. She might not invite the comparison, but her non-flashy guitar playing is closest to the eccentric magnificence of U2’s The Edge. “Surgeon” and “Cheerleader” took two of the strongest cuts from her previous albums and turned them into powerful demonstrations of her finesse and arty brilliance. She closed out on recent single “Birth in Reverse” which brought the crowd to gleefully dance along.
Lastly, Florence + The Machine took to the penultimate slot on the main stage for what can only be described as a star-making performance for the UK band and its lead singer Florence Welch. Most of the act’s power comes from Welch’s unbelievably skilled vocals. Truly, there’s probably no female pop singer today than can compare with Welch’s power and range save for maybe Sia. They opened with one of their best songs “What the Water Gave Me” and then took things to explosive heights with “Spectrum (Say My Name).”
She dropped in her Calvin Hariss collaboration “Sweet Nothing” and title track from her upcoming album (apparently inspired by the Los Angeles skyline) “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful.” “All This and Heaven Too” followed before she dropped in another new song, “Ship to Wreck.” The set closed powerfully, the band playing “Shake it Off” and fan-favorite “Dog Days Are Over.” Everywhere you looked ecstatic girls could be seen dancing and twirling. This was deserved, but little else with a gigantic crowd this weekend could have the same said of it. The priorities of all in attendance seem aligned with something skewed and insular.
Much earlier in the day, hardcore punk band OFF! shredded through a bevy of short songs to a (here we go again) small crowd. Undaunted, the band’s Keith Morris, Dimitri Coats, Steven McDonald and Mario Rubalcaba tore through each song with freight train speed and ferocity. About halfway through their set, lead singer Keith Morris made the point that pretty much sums up the entire experience this year. He questioned the crowd raising his hand, “Who’s staying for Panda Bear?” (Panda Bear was slated to play next on the very same stage.) A paltry few of the punk loving attendees raised their hand. Morris looked around puzzled. He angrily protested, “Are you fucking kidding me?” He continued, “Just because we bring our own flavor to this thing doesn’t mean you can’t stay and expand your mind.” Now, if you’re not familiar, Morris is something of a punk legend. He played in Black Flag for a time and also was the lead singer of the now defunct Circle Jerks. He’s worked in A&R and has served as a pundit for many of the most important acts in the punk movement’s history. He also is a scholarly individual, warmly embracing the nature and importance of new music, extolling bands as far away from his own regular sound as Crocodiles.
Think on this for a moment. Here is a tiny crowd gathered for one of the few truly rocking bands on the weekend. 50,000 people at a minimum were at this festival, and roughly 49,500 of them were somewhere else when they could have been checking out OFF! Here, Morris is sermonizing the few died-in-the-wool fans present to be more open-minded. How many other acts this weekend did that? Did Drake call out for Drive Like Jehu? Did AC/DC say, “Can’t wait to check out St. Vincent!” Did The Weeknd tell everyone how bad it was that they missed Perfume Genius? No. What we have is an insular world becoming more insular. It’s a slew of crabs in a bucket trying to climb on top of one another to get out. Keith Morris should be given an award for his courage. But while his sermon was dead on the money right, it’s the wrong pulpit for it. It’s not the 500 fans here that are the problem. It’s everyone else. We had a diverse festival overflowing with different styles, ideas and a general love for music. Now, we have a hedonistic mess where nobody wants to try anything different.
4. Historical Context
It’s easy to criticize, but it’s important to point out, mxdwn.com the music magazine has been a diehard supporter of the Coachella Music Festival pretty much as long as the magazine existed. When we first attended back in 2004 (the legendary Radiohead/Pixies year) we attempted to cover the festival essentially in real time. This was before Twitter and true social media. Literally, a team of 6 people waited in shifts while I, Raymond Flotat, called them every after band with updates. The team in turn wrote the updates right that second. Later, one of our best writers Adam Blyweiss and I used some of the earliest affordable web-enabled phones to post short updates through a script I had programmed. This was before we had press access. Before we could use a photo pit. Before we had any idea what the VIP area was like. We just wanted to share what we thought was a profound and special experience with the world. The best and the brightest from amidst a litany of genres laid out in a compact viewing area? It was all we ever hoped for. And that’s what makes the experience described here this weekend so sad. Years worth of fans purchased tickets and made a destination out of this festival. And for what? So that it could become as incestuous as anything mainstream radio has ever barfed out? It’s not because there isn’t a home for pop and dance in music. We have always loved those genres. Our archives will show it. But it’s a bright world, filled with every style and flavor (to put it in Keith Morris’ terms) imaginable. Why limit ourselves?
5. Run For Your Life
Hopefully a few readers here remember Coachella 2008. That was the Portishead and Roger Waters year. The festival was not sold out before the show date, and not long before the fest, Prince was added even over Portishead on the lineup. The experience was more comfortable, and people you talked to everywhere you went that weekend were stoked to finally have a real chance to see the elusive trip-hop geniuses. On the final day of the festival, the schedule was wisely stacked up in such that only a handful of things were happening concurrently with Roger Water’s epic set. Also not coincidentally, the rising stars Justice were slated to play right at the end of Waters’ set, 11:00 p.m. Knowing a horde would be coming to head to see Justice at that moment, I ventured backwards through the crowd, angling myself for a better exit and to not have to be struggling against the masses fleeing. When “Another Brick in the Wall Part 2” and “Comfortably Numb” were playing I was at the very back of the crowd, ready to turn and bolt. The set finished and I was already speed walking towards the Sahara Tent for Justice. In a bizarre twist of fate, a young couple (I’d guess 24-years old) started speed walking next to me, hand-in-hand. They had the wild-eyed look of joy that I felt almost every year at the festival. They called out to me, “Are you running to Justice?” I said, “Yes. Hoping to not get caught up in a—“
We looked back behind us and a stampede of roughly 5,000 fans was running, not walking, in the same direction as us. I’m not sure who said it, but someone cried out, “Run!” We ran side-by-side for a good while, urgently, but laughing and smiling all the same. Somewhere in the urgency to not be trampled by dance music fans, I lost sight of the couple. I remember thinking after the scorching set from Justice, “Boy, I wish I had found out who that couple was. They seemed nice. We could’ve been friends.” But, I didn’t have time to learn anything about them or even their names. I never saw them again. And, it seems, I probably never will.
All photos for mxdwn by Owen Ela