Thursday, June 25, 2009

2009 Coachella Review - Friday Day One

Well, more than a little late in getting this posted...but better late than never.

To the point, Coachella 2009 was another embarrassment of riches for southern California music fans.

In what I saw, it didn't hit the consistent peaks of 2008, even though the lineup going in appeared stronger on paper...but it still offered a number of wonderful sets, and with one show, possibly the best concert going experience of my entire life (one guess who that artist was).

Anyway, here's my two cents on the acts I did manage to catch Friday

Best Friday Shows:

1) Paul McCartney
2) Franz Ferdinand
3) The Black Keys
4) The Hold Steady
5) Cage The Elephant

Weakest Friday Shows:

1) The Courteeners
2) M. Ward
3) Ryan Bingham
4) A Place to Bury Strangers
5) Ting Tings (didn’t see, but Craig did and said it was worst he saw all festival)

Headed off from Valencia with my good friend Craig around 9:15.

Unlike last year, which was a full-on exercise in solo immersion, this would be a more social Coachella, with Craig and I heading up together for all three days, and my wife Nancy and Craig’s wife Diane joining us for Friday evening through Sunday afternoon.

After checking in at our Palm Springs hotel, and a surprisingly long security line (I’m telling you, every band on the Friday line-up benefited from Sir Paul’s presence…it seemed like every one of his fans got there at noon…none of this casually late cool kid nonsense for the old timers) grabbed a couple of beers and a slice of Pizza, chatted with a couple of very knowledgeable music industry publicists, and settled in for the first main stage act.

The Courteeners

Unfortunatley, have to say wasn't too impressed. Standard, anthem-oriented, Brit pop feel to their music, but in fairness to them, was still socialize and not paying too much attention.

Ryan Bingham

We headed over to Ryan Bingham midset in the Gobi next. He was throwing down some straight ahead honkey-tonk...sounded fine, and he was into it...but the couple songs we caught weren’t blowing us away…0 for 2 so it was off to...

The Aggrolites

And the first awesome set of the day.

Caught the last twenty minutes in the Mojave. I am not familiar with their recorded works, but they were a blast, laying down their "Dirty Reggae." Lead singer had a fine, gritty voice, and they closed with a wonderful cover of Peter Tosh's Walk On By.

Gui Boratto

I'm not a Sahara tent guy. I do buy a number of electronic dance albums each year, but I'm over forty, a horrendous dancer, I don't do X, and watching a DJ bopping up and down over his/her laptop just isn't my idea of a concert-going experience. Still, it was Craig's first time attending, and we wanted to check out the Sahara early in the day, as it is always the most crowded and least mangageable of the Coachella stages as the day progresses...Gui Boratto was performing at time, and while I wasn't familiar with his music, it did have a soothing, immersive vibe. Will probably pick up his latest this year.

Cage the Elephant

This is a band to watch. I don’t have their debut, and not sure about their songwriting chops, but the set from this young, garage act out of Tennessee was spirited, funky, raucous, and a hell of a lot of fun.

Their lead singer is very charismatic live, struck me as a cross between a skateboard punk and Mick Jagger. Best of the early first day acts.

The Airbourne Toxic Event

Typically, 4pm Friday is when Coachella starts bringing out the heavy hitters, and this year was no exception. In fact, 4-6 Friday was probably the worst batch of head-to-head conflicts of the festival, with Airbourne, Hold Steady, Los Campesinos, M. Ward, The Black Keys, Buraka Som Sistema and The Ting Tings all seriously overlapped.

Craig and I split for the next two hours, but we both started at the main stage for the beginning of Airbourne's set.

Though a new band with just one album and already backlash victims amongst the indie/blogosphere snoberatti due to the huge success of their single Sometime Around Midnight, their anthemy, angsty, slightly U2ish sound is a great fit for the main stage...big and emotionally direct. They opened, as I expected, with Wishing Well and did themselves proud. After that, I was off for other shows, but Craig stayed for the duration and ranked their set amongst his top five of the entire weekend.

The Hold Steady

To my tastes, this is one of the elite recording bands of the last half-decade, and they have a great live reputation. As such, having yet to see them live myself, this was a personal can't miss...and they didn't disappoint.

Roaring through a blitzkrieg of tracks from their last three records, every song in the set was a blast...but Sequestered in Memphis and Little Hoodrat Friend were the definite standouts.

Craig Finn’s physical appearance threw me a little. Based on his vocals persona, I was expecting a big, heavy set, menacing drunk. Instead, he comes off live like an enthusiastic film school nerd. No matter, he did great. I heard later he had been battling a cold, but you never would have known based on the show.

M. Ward

Stopped by for a few minutes at Outdoor Theater on way to Mainstage for the Black Keys. I've got his last two albums, as well as She and Him: Volume One, all of which I like but don't love, and felt the same about what I caught here. Sounded good, meticulously, tastefully arranged, but a tad safe and dull, just like his albums.

Also, I didn’t like his stage banter. It had a slightly patronizing, “I'm special, and you're not” quality to it that I found instantly off-putting. Probably knocking his set down a notch or two for this as much as anything.

The Black Keys

I'm far from a huge fan of the Keys on record...I usually love one or two cuts from each record, and their minimalist, bluesy sound is without question cool...but as songwriters, I find them very limited.

With that said, they were absolute monsters during the last half of their set. Visually, they were dwarfed by the main stage, but Dan Auerbach's guitar was so huge, and his solo lines so strong, it didn't matter. A fabulous, primal, head-tripping set.

Conor Oberst and the Mystic Valley Band

Caught a few songs waiting to hook back up with Craig by the Hand of Man (this year’s favorite art installation), and have to say, these guys sounded great. Would have loved to have caught whole set closer up, but too big a conflict with...

Franz Ferdinand

Great set. Second favorite of Day One.

I've got all their albums, but had never seen Franz live. First thing that struck me is how completely Alex Kapranos dominates the band live.

The second thing that struck me is what a top notch live performer Kapranos is...big voice, fine guitar work, charismatic front man.

And the third thing that struck me is how much fun their music is live...nothing but energy, propulsion and hooks. A failed attempt to initiate a sing-along to the mellow “na na na na” chorus from 40 is my one quibble, but that aside, a fantastic way to start off the 1st evening.

Pangs of regret though, Nancy and Diane had been late to get off, and were now caught in brutal traffic. This is a set she had hoped to catch and would have absolutely loved.

Leonard Cohen

A bit of hipster sacrilege here. Wanted to get into this, but Cohen is primarily considered a songwriter for good reason, his ocean-deep baritone is a really limited instrument. Caught opening two songs of sounded fine, backing vocals were excellent...but at moment Craig and I just weren't in the mood to ride this one out. So we bailed on an all-time master in order to see...


…Pickle-headed aliens and orange-haired, green-body-painted dancers.

For the unfamiliar, N.A.S.A. is a fun, party-dance D.J. act who perform with an entourage of costumed, almost muppet-like dancers. Again, it felt like sacrilege to be skipping Cohen to sit in on this, but it was also brilliant counter programming and ridiculously entertaining in a shamelessly low-tech way. Couldn’t tell you one thing I remember about the music, but if you ask me, I can still describe each of their costumed alien dancers in vivid detail.

Ghostland Observatory

Had time to kill before Beirut, so snuck in mid-Sahara for five minutes of this set. Light show seemed really wild, musical vibe was as if Rush’s Geddy Lee decided to front a moody electronica act. Crowd was totally into it, but nothing like what was to come next.


Weirdest vibe of entire festival.

The band sounded fine, playing crisp, clean versions of all their biggest tracks. But in a reworking of the famous Churchill line, never have so few done so little to earn the adulation of so many.

Don’t get me wrong, I love this band and their swirling faux gypsy/balkan sound, I love Zach Condon’s voice, and I think he is a true genius when it comes to horn lines…but let’s be honest, he’s also one of the lamest lyricist on the present day circuit, and he and his band can hardly be accused of “bringing it,” live with their static, disengaged Cars-like stage presence and snotty banter (complaints about noise bleed from other stages).

But damn if the crowd here wasn’t roaring at the start of every horn passage as if this were the Beatles kicking off I Want To Hold Your Hand circa 1964, making it difficult to process the only thing that matters when it comes to listening to Beirut…the music.

A surreal experience. Guess they’re more broadly popular than I thought.

A Place to Bury Strangers

A big, big disappointment.

I’m a fan of their debut album, it’s got a number of excellent shoe gazey/Jesus and Mary Chain-styled songs, and with so few non-metal bands really rocking hard these days, was ready for an adrenaline rush. But while their claims of being the New York’s loudest band proved warranted, I found the extreme volume to be neither exciting, rebellious, subversive or edgy, but, in the ultimate disgrace for a leather-clad, New York-based band, simply silly.

Their amped guitar completely drowned out everything else until all sense of instrumental or structural detail was lost, leaving one with a lite, full-concert-length version of My Bloody Valenite’s holocaust, which even that ultra-edgy band has the sense to only employ as a “experiential” closer to their otherwise clearly mixed sets.

Paul McCartney

Nancy and Diane finally arrive before Macca goes on. Craig and I have left Strangers early to hook up, and can still hear them all the way from their perch in the Gobi to our present spot in the main stage beer tent. Truly New York’s loudest band.

Macca takes the stage with little fanfare while we’re still finishing our beers, opens with a weak version of Jet, then a just okay version of Drive My Car, and some Fireman song I’ve never heard.

“Uh oh,” I think. After having been present at Prince’s and Roger Water’s insanely great headliner sets the year before, there’s only one thought going through my head. “This might turn into a disaster.”

Never in my concert going life have I been so wrong.

Sir Paul is 66. What I took as a lackluster stage presence was simply an older man needed a little time to warm up. Things kick off around the 7th song, when Paul takes the piano for a beautiful version of The Long and Winding Road. Then he breaks it to the audience…it’s the eleventh anniversary of Linda’s death, and he thought long and hard before agreeing to perform on this night. With that, he kicks into a heartfelt version of My Love, and from this point on, he and his band can do no wrong.

For the remaining two hours, I am completely in the moment.

I can’t believe how great the band sounds.

I can’t believe I’m getting a chance to see a Beatle live.

I can’t believe how great it feels to share this with Nancy.

I can’t stop smiling every time the video screen cuts to McCartney’s drummer, an intimidating giant of a man who looks like a cross between a sumo wrestler and Suge Knight, but who’s aggressive enthusiasm and absolute dedication to this material is positively infectious.

The songs sound totally familiar, and yet, abetted by this gifted set of musicians and the superb Coachella main stage sound system, also sound totally contemporary.

The uptempo numbers really surprise, Paperback Writer, Get Back, Back In The U.S.S.R, Birthday, Helter Skelter, Live and Let Die, etc., rocking as hard as anything we will see all week. The quieter numbers prove moving and communal (Hey Jude just keeps getting better and better the more people you add to the sing along)…and on and on it goes, a full hour past the midnight curfew, through seven encore tracks and too many classic Beatles songs to count, finally closing, fittingly, with a medley of Sgt. Peppers Reprise flowing into The End from Abbey Road. Macca and his two guitarists stretch out the “Love You” riff exchange that comes near the close of The End for what seems like a full three minutes, building to an unbelievable crescendo, and then, bam, the final line, and it’s over.

Coachella peaked early in 2009, unlike 2008, which was far more balanced, nothing in the two days to follow will come anywhere close to matching the communal joy of this set, but it doesn’t matter. This performance has been worth the full 3-day $300.00 admission price alone.

Best concert I have ever seen.

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