There are concerts, there are music festivals, and then there’s Coachella.
In case we needed a final reminder of the annual California desert gathering’s magical hold over its participants—those off and onstage—we received one around 12:30 a.m. Monday morning, when Robert Smith and his Cure bandmates continued bashing away at unamplified instruments, as Smith screamed into a dead microphone. The veteran U.K. goth-rockers had been told to finish their fest-capping set several minutes earlier, to which Smith responded, “Ha,” and carried on cranking out old favorites. In keeping with the Empire Polo Field’s long-standing midnight noise curfew (ex-Beatles exempted, apparently; Paul McCartney finished his Friday set, uninterrupted, around 12:50), power to the main-stage speakers was cut two songs into The Cure’s third encore. No matter. The quintet performed two additional tunes (“Boys Don’t Cry” and “Jumping Someone’s Else’s Train”), supported only by stage amps. The instant two giant side screens went dark, the remaining crowd rushed to the front and began loudly singing along with Smith, whose voice was, by this point, totally unaided. Soon after, all stage electricity was severed, yet The Cure soldiered even further on, playing part of a final number, “Grinding Halt,” entirely sans amplification.
It was crazy. And frustrating. And funny. And brilliant. And uniquely Coachella. Neither band nor fans—some likely not even fans of The Cure but simply of music or, in this case, musical commitment—wanted the set, the night, the weekend to end. So everyone did everything within their power not to let it.
Search around and you’ll read about Coachella’s success in the face of the recession—about how the festival’s 10th edition weathered our fiscal apocalypse and drew surprisingly well (the second-best attendance ever, some outlets have reported, though it hardly felt that way on Sunday). You’ll find items about Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon (yes, together) and Kate Bosworth and David Hasselhoff (no, not together) and loads of other celebs spotted on Indio’s grassy expanses.
And you’ll come across news of some 70 arrests, mostly for drug- and alcohol-related offenses, but (apparently) no serious injuries suffered, over the fest’s three 12-hour days. Talk to most anyone who was there, however, and they’ll give you the real scoop: Coachella is all about the music.
That was the case when the gates opened Friday, as rootsy rockers Alberta Cross fired up the Outdoor Theatre (aka second stage; Coachella features two outdoor stages, three tents, one dome, a DJ station called the Do-Lab and occasional drum circles in its camp site) with the bluesiest Southern rock to come out of Britain in, well, a while.
It held true later in the Mojave Tent, where America’s finest bar band, The Hold Steady, treated Las Vegas attendees to a do-over. Four nights earlier at the Beauty Bar, the Brooklynites’ sound mix (courtesy of their traveling engineer) was a travesty; this time, Craig Finn’s vibrant lyrical stories were actually audible, which is, you know, better.
And soon after, on the main stage, with blues duo The Black Keys stripping rock ’n’ roll to its bare essentials: guitar, drums and feeling. “That’s Patrick, I’m Dan. Thanks for hanging out with us,” guitarist Dan Auerbach remarked, as if the pair were sharing a back-porch beer with old pals.
And later still in the Sahara Tent, as Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass introduced Coachella’s packed dance hub to her oddly intoxicating helium-pitched screeches, which don’t so much float upon as threaten to burst the Canadian group’s buoyant electro-pop.
And just past sundown, back at the Outdoor, where babbling teens went silent to worship at the feet of a 74-year-old man. A rare U.S. festival appearance by dark-folk icon Leonard Cohen was treated with much reverence, and deservedly so. His catalog—“The Future,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Everybody Knows,” “Who by Fire,” “Hallelujah”—truly came alive under the stars, Cohen’s ghostly appearance belying a voice that has aged ever so gracefully. (On a down note, hearing Morrissey’s main-stage thundering clutter Cohen’s final two numbers—listening to the two singers “fight,” Silversun Pickups frontman Brian Aubert would term it later—was a tragedy. Cleaning up sound bleed should be a priority for 2010; it seemed worse than ever in ’09.)
And at night’s end, when McCartney revved up a slow-developing set with an onslaught of Beatles material—a ukulele-aided “Something,” “I’ve Got a Feeling,” “Paperback Writer,” “A Day in the Life,” “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude”—and a fireworks-augmented “Live and Let Die.” It was far from the set of the weekend, but it managed to feel momentous and fun, a happy ending to a solid first day.
Music was the first order of business again on an even stronger Saturday, kicked off for some at the Outdoor by avant rockers Liars. Despite temperatures approaching triple-digits, 6’6” vocalist Angus Andrew romped around the stage in his typically weird way, imbuing the band’s off-kilter tunes with an artistic visual performance.
It was all about music for the Drive-By Truckers, the quintet that traveled from Georgia to California to play tough country-rock on the Outdoor, drink whiskey under the hot sun (bassist Shonna Tucker, swigging Jack Daniel’s from a giant-sized bottle) and, later in the day, back Stax legend Booker T. in the Gobi Tent. They even invited Hold Steady guitarist Tad Kubler onstage for a wild cover of Jim Carroll’s punky “People Who Died.”
And again, one changeover later at the Outdoor, when Superchunk made its about-time Coachella debut. The Carolina indie vets, still technically together but playing infrequently these days, wasted no time on chatting, blazing through a throwback set that began with “Throwing Things,” ended with “Slack Motherfucker” and hit its highest note with an accelerated take on “Precision Auto.”
And just after 6, in the Gobi Tent, when African guerilla fighters-cum-nomadic rockers Tinariwen treated startled onlookers to a haunting series of Saharan-soaked Afro-folk. Rumor had it their faces were covered to protect their identities; even if it wasn’t true, it was a cool back story.
And as the cruel sun finally recessed below the palm trees, during TV on the Radio’s much-anticipated main-stage performance. A three-man horn section comprising members of Antibalas and Breakestra blanketed the New Yorkers’ already weighty art-rock tunes with new complexities, atop which Tunde Adebimpe and Kyp Malone harmonized with uncanny accuracy.
And as darkness enveloped the field back at the Outdoor, where the harmonic warriors in Seattle’s Fleet Foxes managed to redefine uncanny accuracy just moments later, with an ethereal batch of precisely constructed material that proved to be a weekend highlight, despite frontman Robin Pecknold’s assertion he felt uncomfortable in a festival setting.
Saturday night wasn’t all about the music, which helps explain why it felt somewhat empty after all the daylight heroics. M.I.A., added to the lineup late to fill in for visa-denied U.K. soulstress Amy Winehouse, opted for spectacle over substance in her main-stage debut (she’d previously played in two of the tents). Her hype man, dancers and colorful visuals ultimately signified little when she held her best tunes back far too long, losing the ear of a crowd that had been primed for a party.
In the Sahara, The Chemical Brothers certainly had folks dancing, but the U.K. dance duo’s DJ set felt too easy, too safe. A live performance could have helped elevate a somewhat forgettable—by Coachella’s sky-high standards—’09 electronic lineup.
To cap it off, The Killers took the main stage around 10:40 and did what they do about the best they can, but, quite frankly, that felt nowhere good enough in a slot previously held down by the likes of Radiohead and Prince. Sandwiched between Sir Paul’s nostalgia trip and The Cure’s endurance trial, The Killers’ performance seemed too lightweight.
But the sun rose again on Sunday, with music back in the center spotlight. Brooklyn’s Vivian Girls didn’t break new ground with their fuzzy lo-fi pop ditties, but their candied harmonies and buried hooks sounded great just the same.
Music saved the day for Austin’s Okkervil River, which initially seemed overmatched by the heat of the day and the main stage, but won the crowd over with a slew of dynamic, clap-along melodies.
And in the Mojave, where Canadian hardcorists Fucked Up inspired the rowdiest mosh pit, yet still managed to keep it safe. Post-set highlight: rough-and-tumble punker Damian Abraham, returning keys and other wayward possessions to their rightful owners at the foot of the stage.
And again a few minutes later in the Mojave, as notoriously unpredictable psych-rock troupe Brian Jonestown Massacre kept its egos in check to produce a killer slate of tunes. Leader Anton Newcombe demonstrated his calm, inviting Dandy Warhol Zia McCabe up for “Not If You Were the Last Dandy on Earth,” and remaining calm when Joel Gion’s tossed tambourine landed on his head.
Music wasn’t in the cards for hip-hop team Clipse, Scottish rockers Glasvegas or DJ pair Craze & Klever—all were last-minute festival no-gos, or perhaps no-shows. And though beloved British vocalist Antony Hegarty was in fine voice at the Outdoor, his never-before-utilized backing tracks (concocted by Matthew Herbert) failed to cocoon his songs properly.
But in the end, those valleys mattered little. Because back at the main stage, the sun was setting and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing, prepping the crowd for the night’s featured attractions. Though Karen O’s antics seemed toned down, the music was well chosen and ably performed.
Still, nothing truly compared to Sunday’s main event, the arrival of noise-pop masters My Bloody Valentine on the main stage. And nothing, not even the front-gate handout of free earplugs to every Coachella-goer on Day 3, could have prepared those not previously initiated for the live MBV experience. The recently reunited foursome—Kevin Shields, Bilinda Butcher, Debbie Googe and Colm Ó Cíosóig—rained a sonic assault down upon a startled crowd, every bass blast in “Only Shallow,” drum beat in “Soon” and layer of guitar distortion in “Feed Me With Your Kiss” finding a new path to the rib cage, skull and, despite the protection, ears.
And that was only foreplay. Final number “You Made Me Realise” concluded with 20 minutes of white noise that approximated the sound inside an airport hanger just before takeoff. As time ticked along, faces in the crowd turned from curious to annoyed to angry to afraid—afraid it would never, ever end. Epic fun.
Following that couldn’t have been easy, but The Cure proved up to the challenge, kicking off its marathon with “Underneath the Stars” off latest album 4:13 Dream before hitting the back catalog with 1989’s glorious “Prayers for Rain.” Even those who wandered off to experience Throbbing Gristle’s industrial oddities in the Mojave (creepy but strangely entrancing) or Etienne de Crecy’s hotly tipped visuals in the Sahara (his pulsating “cube” proved pretty tame) still found plenty of Cure to come back to. Smith’s evocative voice, a growing concern in recent years, rang out as strong as ever. And though some might decry the band’s decision to toss its synths overboard, all fears were forgotten with Smith’s sick guitar work at the start of “The Kiss.” As for the finish, for an instant it felt like a missed opportunity, a lost chance to hear “Boys Don’t Cry,” “Jumping Someone Else’s Train,” “Grinding Halt” and whatever else Smith had cooked up, the way they were intended, fully amplified, visually realized. But then, what stories could we tell to our children about the night the power was cut on Coachella, and Coachella fought back? This was special. This was magic. This was true musical devotion.