Monday, April 19, 2010

Coachella: The Best and Worst of Humanity

With any sort of large social gathering, you get the best and worst of everything, music festivals are no exception. Coachella is unique because it is located in a desert oasis between Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas. It is undoubtedly the largest music festival in the western United States. This lends itself to becoming filled with some of the nicest people you could have ever wished for, people who genuinely enjoy the band they're watching and love having conversations about music. There also was a ton of really impressive art instillations and exhibits to enjoy. On the flip side, there was also an uncomfortable amount of douche bag fratboys who are there for the party and could care less about the music, young teenagers who feel like they are entitled to everything, and people who are just flat out rude to their fellow man. 

 Coachella means something different for every person, for me it has been a unattainable goal that I could never reach. For years I have been wanting to go, but for the past four or five years something has always come up that prevents me from attending. Luckily, the stars were in line this year. 

I had been to a few festivals before, so I thought I knew what I was getting into. Boy was I wrong. This was the first year they didn't do single day passes which pretty much forced everyone to camp or find a hotel. That on top of terrible traffic control resulted in my car having to sitting in a five and a half hour line to get to my cramped camping spot all the while I'm sitting there wondering, "Is this really worth it?"

After we unloaded and got two hours of sleep at 7am, we were ready to head into the festival. It was hot, but there was enough of a breeze to make it bearable. I purchased a giant straw hat to wear, call me a dork but I was the one laughing at the end of the day when I was the only person not sunburned. The food there was really expensive, and the potions were small. The beer was what really brought me down they only sold Heineken for $7, luckily I was able to smuggle my own spirits in. 

Coachella made me realize that music festivals should be seen as giant sample platters for music. The bands play shorter sets and during the day which isn't ideal for concerts, but if you like what you see you'll probably check them out next time in town. 

Having been my first time I had a mental image in my mind as to what it was going to be like. I had this idea that harkened back to the Woodstock days where it was free love and it was loosely run and there weren't any rules. While there were certainly decadent aspects to it, I was shocked by how corporate the festival seemed. Every single tent was sponsored by some company, certain business (like Heineken) had a monopoly over everything else which allowed prices to go sky high.

Now onto the music!

I saw a ton of bands, I'm not going to review every single band I saw but I will mention highlights and low-lights as well as surprises.  

1. Devo - Holy god were they good! This reformed 80's new wave group were not only my favorite set of the weekend they were also the biggest surprise for me. First off I commend them for playing "Whip It" towards the beginning of their set. This allowed the casual listener to leave and let the fans have more room to dance. Devo may be gray and over the hill, but they have the energy of teenagers. They pulled out all of the stops, the paper yellow suits, the red cone hats. If they roll into town again I will be first in line to see them.

2. LCD Soundsystem - LCD probably had the biggest weekend of anyone. This was the first time where they were presented as a top tier headlining act, and they rose to the occasion. Performing a blistering set to a packed mainstage audience. Their new material worked nicely with their older stuff. However the biggest surprise was the fact that they played the 8 minute rambling "Losing My Edge." I have been an LCD fan for years and I can tell you that they rarely ever play that song. It was an absolute treat. 

3. Jay-Z - I knew he was going to be entertaining but I did not think he would be that electrifying. He had the coolest backdrop of any artist that weekend, a LED display that was shaped like sky-scrapers. This guy could take over the world if he wanted to, he has the confidence of Alexander the Great. At the end of the set he brought out Beyonce (who was the most beautiful woman at the festival) to sing "Forever Young." 

4. Atoms For Peace - I felt bad for Pavement, they were supposed to be a big draw for people, but they had to compete against Thom Yorke's solo project Atom's for Peace, and in the world of indie rock Radiohead is God and Thom Yorke is Christ. So naturally, Yorke won the crowd, and for good reason. He put on a very lush set feulled by his newest bassist Flea. I'm sure they would have been my #1 if I wasn't a mile away, but they were still tremendous and still upstaged Gorillaz.

5. Yo La Tengo - I have been wanting to see them for a long time, I knew I was going to enjoy their set, but I didn't think was going to that much. They played every song I love of theirs. It's a shame that they didn't get a bigger crowd, most of the people left after De La Soul performed. Check out their dance routine that apparently was requested by Sly Stone 

6. Hot Chip - A perfect example of a group that needed to play a longer set, but were screwed due to time constraints. Their tight musicianship still left a great impression on me. 

7. Old Crow Medicine Show - Bluegrass isn't usually welcome at hipster paradise. But Old Crow were man enough to take on the mainstage. After some audio problems they settled into an absolutely supercharged hour of music. I am sure they gained about a thousand new fans that day, so yeah it was a great day for bluegrass. 
8. Them Crooked Vultures - I saw them a few months back at their record release show at The Wiltern and wasn't really that impressed. They were very repetitive. I guess all that time on the road did them wonders because the band I saw that friday was a completely different Them Crooked Vultures. They seemed focused yet loose enough to improvise some impressive Zeppelin-esque jams. It doesn't hurt to have an actual member of Zepp in your band too. Like Muse, they were built for large outdoor settings like this. 

9. Gil-Scott Heron - I only caught about twenty minutes of his set due to my wanting to get front row for LCD Soundsystem, but what I saw I was completely impressed. It was only his scratchy voice, a piano, a bongo player and a saxophone. Sure it was laid back, and not danceable, but Heron is a poet. The magic is in the meaning of the songs, not how they sound. During the short time that I was there he touched on love, loss, peace and pain. He's a withered tortured soul who has probably experienced more than anyone else at that festival. It was a treat to be able to say I saw him. 

And now onto the disappointments:

1. Beach House - Maybe it was the weather, the sound issues, and the fact that they were playing on way too large of a stage but something about Beach House really bored me to death. I enjoy their new album but their Coachella set taught me that setting is everything. Some great bands are not built for the hot sun and summer festivals and Beach House is a perfect example. They need to stick to smaller indoor venues at night and maybe I'll check them out again. 

2. The xx - What the hell makes this band likable? I seriously cannot wrap my head around why they are successful. Every one of their songs sounded the same. If I learned three chords on guitar and whispered into a mic I guess I could have an evening slot at Coachella as well. I was drug into their set and had to miss Dirty Projectors which I was bummed about. 

3. Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeroes - I enjoy their album, it has a very positive vibe to it, and as all the hippies in attendance showed me is great to skip around in a circle to. But Ed Sharpe himself was all over the place that night. He was obviously fucked up on something, he stumbled around the stage, sang off-track from the music, and forced some of his band-mates to cover from him. 

4. Gorillaz - Yep. There I said it, the most talked about group of the weekend was also one of the biggest let downs for me. I bought into the hype that they were going to be a visual spectacular like no other. I absolutely loved the mystery of the band, the whole cartoon aspect was very unique. Previously, they used to perform behind a silhouette to keep the band members identities hidden. Instead they removed the curtain and reveal their identities that night. Gorillaz had no mystery left, turns out they are human just like the rest of us. It was a big letdown for me. Props to Daft Punk for keeping mystery in music in tact. Gorillaz proved that watching a bunch of british people playing instruments is far less entertaining than a shrouded cartoon rock group. 

5. Sly Stone - The fucker didn't show up until later. He pulled a Sly. I didn't see his set, but apparently it was a glorious train wreck and Sly spent most of the time talking about his money troubles. 

Did I enjoy my time at Coachella? Yes, absolutely I think everyone should submit themselves to this kind of experience at least once in their lives. It will give you stories to tell for years. However, I would not be the kind of person who bops around to every single one of these sorts of things. Would I go back? Probably, if the setlist was good enough $269 is a lot of cash though. For now, I'm going to set my sights for festivals that are in a better climate.  


  1. What were your thoughts on Muse?

  2. I enjoyed them. They were solid, but they were pretty much what I expected them to be, didn't surprise me. You?