Saturday, July 18, 2009

Coachella 2009 Review - Sunday Day Three

For veterans of this decade’s mega-fests, you know that by day three, you’re pretty wiped.

We all got up relatively early, but for my less hardcore travel companions, after two days of non-stop music, the charms of our hotel pool in the morning Palm Springs sun outweighed the chance to catch the number of big buzz lo-fi punk acts that would dominate Sunday’s early afternoon line-up. So I headed off alone.

My Best Shows of the Day
1) Okkervil River
2) My Bloody Valentine
3) Public Enemy
4) X
5) Lykke Li/The Night Marchers

My Weakest Shows of Day
1) Murder City Devils (least favorite show of entire fest)
2) Vivian Girls

Got through security by 12:30, grabbed a couple of waters, and headed straight for…

Vivian Girls

In what felt like a first for the festival, a venue other than the Sahara (which has always been a self-contained electronic dance festival within the larger festival) was given a clear theme for the day…punk. From lo-fi contemporary darlings Vivian Girls, No Age, and the Kills, to psychedelic nut job Brian Jonestown Massacre, to the glammish Horrors, hardcore practitioners Murder City Devils and Fucked Up, and seminal influences X and Throbbing Gristle, this stage on this day was a punk rock smorgasbord.

Vivian Girls started off the day, and in full disclosure, I have their debut, which landed on a ton of top 50 lists in 2008, and I hate it. Ditto for No Age’s Nouns, the highly praised album by the band to come next..

Both acts, along with contemporaries Abe Vigoda (who seem a given to play the fest next year), crank out arty versions of punk defined less by the songs than a ideological/creative commitment to god-awful lo-fi mixes.

Personally, I think no-fi is the better description, because these recordings are so muddy, it’s often impossible to enjoy their sometimes fine songs on anything other than an intellectual level. Think Sonic Youth/Husker Du/Mission of Burma at their harshest, downgrade the audio quality another five or six notches, and that’s what you get with these bands.

Still, I wanted to check these girls and No Age out today, in the hopes that live it wasn’t as hard to appreciate them.

Alas, there was absolutely no difference.

Their simple girl group rockabilly tunes sounded every bit as murky and tuneless live as they do on record. I came away feeling like I was watching the luckiest art school coffee shop band in the world.
I stuck it out for twenty-five minutes, then grown bored of watching a drummer with chops my eleven year old can top, headed over to catch…

Mexican Institute of Sound

A young, Mexican rap band, they had a really cool fusion going, mixing fairly standard rap flows to beats flavored by their own cultural music. A thoroughly entertaining and energetic set.

No Age

Back to the Mojave.

To these guy’s credit, they had a lot more going on than Vivian Girls. For one, they are punks by choice, rather than the necessity of musical limitation; they can really play. Two, they were intensely into their set, and didn’t sound quite as murky.

But the killer here is their drummer/lead singer’s voice.

It’s awful, and not in a good-bad way like so many great bad singers of the past like Dylan or Lou Reed or Neil Young, but just bad… whiny and tuneless.

So while the tent was packed, and the crowd was loving it, I still couldn’t enjoy and headed back to Outdoor Theater for…

The Night Marchers

…and rockabilly punk like it is more traditionally done.

I know nothing about these guys, and apparently, no one else does either, as this was the least attended set I caught the entire festival (though not nearly as bad as the Akron/Family – Black Mountain scheduling pimps of 2008), but these guys were great.

They seemed to be an older band that’s done a lot of rounds. The lead singer was affably charismatic and conveyed an athletic, slightly surfer-oriented vibe, but was no spring chicken, looked to be pushing forty. But that extra experience paid off, because their closing number was an absolute knock-out.

Wish more people had caught this one.

Okkervil River

Next it was over to the main stage, where I got up within twenty feet for one of my favorite bands of the decade.

For those not familiar with Okkervil River, they’re a highly adventurous, unpredictable alt-country band. Comparisons to Wilco…in terms of genre, high average quality of material, and sheer experimental courage…are apt, but where Wilco, following Jeff Tweedy’s lead, is often subtle and takes time to process, Okkervil are far more immediate and emotionally explosive.

Much of this springs from lead singer/songwriter Will Sheff’s amazing voice. An odd voice for alt-country, it sounds like a bastard blend of the texture/feel of the Cure’s Robert Smith and the emotional histrionics of a Levi Stubbs(Four Tops) or Mark Eitzel (American Music Club).

For some, his voice is a deal breaker, but I love it. Sheff delivers a level of emotional investment few other performers can pull off, and as a songwriter/band leader, Sheff is the consummate home run hitter, not always nailing it, but always swinging for the fences.

As such, the band’s best material, album to album, is beyond great.

So what do you get when a band with this kind of material but not much of a national following is given just fifty minutes to make their case?


Plus One, Pop Lies, Black, A Girl in Port, John Smythee Sails, For Real, Lost Coastlines, Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe, Unless It Kicks…this was a no-holds barred set designed for maximum audience expansion. Every song came off well, but nothing on this day matched A Girl in Port…which perfectly utilized Sheff’s talent for heightened emotional drama and was easily the best ballad performance I heard all weekend, topping even Blitzen Trapper’s Black River Killer, Lykke Li’s Tonight, and McCartney’s armada of beloved Beatle’s classics.

Just a phenomenal set, second best only to McCartney…you know things are going right when your lead sing accidentally falls on his ass, as Sheff did at the end of For Real, but the fall ends up timing out so perfectly that it actually heightens the drama of the moment.

Hope they won some new fans this day. They deserve it.

The Gaslight Anthem

Hooked up with Nancy, Diane & Craig for last half of this set at Outdoor. They were really solid, though not quite as compelling as I anticipated given the charging, populist, Springsteen-styled nature of their material. Could have just been the come down from Okkervil.

On a completely silly note though, these are some big-ass dudes. In this, the ultimate decade of the 5'3" milquetoast nerd rocker, their height and blue collar physicality felt strikingly different.

Lupe Fiasco

Lupe was a mandatory for us, as my eleven-year-old son is a rap freak and Superstar is his favorite song at the moment. Sounded decent on the main stage, with a full backing band, but at times Lupe’s presence was eclipsed by a stronger-voiced supporting rapper.

Dutifully recorded Superstar on our FLIP camera, then caught an excellent version of Streets on Fire, possibly my favorite rap song of last year, on our way to beer tent.

Overall, a good but not great set.

Lykke Li

I raced over to Lykke for her last ten minutes, walking up right at the start of a charged version of Tonight.

Talk about emotional commitment to one’s material, this girl is intense!

Every individual syllable of her simple but compellingly arranged love songs wrench out of her like she’s undergoing a full body exorcism, and while I never thought her to be conventionally attractive, she has an undeniable sexual presence on stage. Following Tonight, she closed with a fine rendition of Dance, Dance, Dance.

Headed back to Main Stage beer tent to say good-bye to Diane and Nancy. They were leaving early to attend to life’s realities - namely our children - while Craig and I would remain in fantasy land until the last possible moment. Peter, Bjorn, and John hit Young Folks with Lykke Li singing the female lead right as we parted ways, then Craig and I headed over to the Outdoor Theater to catch one of the decade’s most unique artists…

Antony and the Johnsons

Some specifics for the unfamiliar, Antony isn’t your run of the mill recording artist - he/she is a full blown transvestite. I have no idea how far (s)he’s gone down the surgery/hormonal path, and given my straight white male mid-western upbringing, I doubt I’ll pursue information on that further, but what’s more important is this - get past any pre-conceptions you may have, or Antony’s own very unique personal point of view, and what you are left with is one of the truly singular singing voices in contemporary pop.

His last two albums are full of moments of overwhelming beauty, steered by that amazing voice, that while operatic in a stereotypically queeny way, never devolves into detached camp, instead always maintaining a raw, honest, intimate emotional link.

Unfortunately, that was not the Antony we would see on this day. I felt the mid-afternoon slot at the Outdoor Theater to be a very odd scheduling choice by Goldenvoice, thinking a late night set in the intimate Gobi would be better, and it appears Antony had the same reaction, for instead of delivering his songs in a caberet manner, he brought a long Matthew Herbert of Scale fame and reworked all his material to come up with, as he put it, “something spicier for a sunny day.”

Craig and I couldn’t go with it, leaving after two songs for the Murder City Devils. A shame, because…

Murder City Devils

Antony’s set ended up getting a ton of raves, and this would prove to be my least favorite set of the entire festival.

Nothing against these guys, I’m sure to fans of hardcore punk flavored with heavy metal leanings and a guttural lead singer, they’re budding superstars…but I don’t like hard-core punk, and there’s nothing I like less in rock n’ roll than guttural, heavy- metal-style singing.

So some, including Craig, may have loved these guys, they were definitely playing with conviction, but for me it was thirty excruciating minutes.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs

Started out the evening back at the main stage with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I was excited to see them, having heard so much about Karen O’s charisma live, though I have to admit, I’m a lukewarm fan of their recorded work at best. They've got some good songs, but they never knock me out.

They kicked off, predictably, with Zero from their latest. It was okay, not great. A so-so version of Gold Lion, and a strong performance Honeybear followed. They appeared to be warming up and getting better, but having already played two of my favorite tracks, and failing to really win over Craig, it wasn’t enough to convine us to skip all of X, with whom they were in complete schedule conflict.


And this proved to be one of the best moves we made all weekend, because X was fantastic.

Though now in their 50s, Exene and especially John Doe were still in great voice, and the band was simply tearing through their play list, which I would later learn they had let their fans select through an internet vote on their website. (But one quibble, how could any fan vote leave out The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss.)

They closed with a rollicking take on Soul Kitchen and the crowd roared with approval, armed with the knowledge that they had just seen one of the weekend’s best sets.

Paul Weller

We hurried over to the Outdoor Theater to catch back half of Paul Weller’s set at sunset.

To the surprise of no one familiar with this thirty year veteran’s body of work, it was incredibly eclectic, each song a 180 degree shift for the one it preceded. More than any other artist at the fest, with the exception of possibly the Cure, whom festival management would be physically forced to pull the plug on a few hours later, Weller wanted to keep going and going, humorously joking between each song about how 50 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time.

Unfortunately, he might have been right, because other than a charming version of Sea Spray from his latest, nothing else stood out for me.

My Bloody Valentine

That would not be a problem here, in what would prove to be for me, the third best - and number one most memorable - set of the entire festival.

For those not in the know, My Bloody Valentine in British 90s band whose whole reputation, for better or worse, is based on one album, the arty, shoe-gaze masterpiece Loveless, now near universally considered one of the three best albums of the decade, alongside Nirvana’s Nevermind and Radiohead’s OK Computer.

But as I would learn, it ain’t called shoe gaze just because of the music.

This is a band that has raised non-interaction with the audience to an art form.

The band takes the stage, and guitarist Kevin Shield’s offers the bands only spoken words of the night, “Hello, Coachella people.” Then the band members take their positions, and…

…for the next hour and ten minutes, playing a set list culled heavily from Loveless, nobody moves.

I exaggerate a touch. Shields and female lead singer Bilinda Butcher take a couple even-keeled steps up to their microphones whenever it’s time to sing, then return dutifully at the same controlled pace to their starting positions, and the bassist plays with a funky side-to-side sway.

That’s it.

But the music sounds great, seriously loud, and though the band doesn’t move, the stage is alive. A massive video screen behind them projects all manner of stock ‘n trade psychedelic paisley blips, and the stage is over run with theatrical smoke. The side video screens keep cutting to a great low angle that hysterically maximizes the smallness and distance between these isolated players on the pulsating stage.

Things continue in this vein for about fifty minutes, and then midway through their last song, it hits, their concert closing tradition…

…the holocaust…

...everyone in the band locks in on one non-chord, and for the next (as close as we timed it) fifteen minutes…that’s all they play, while the volume increases louder and louder. The video screen locks in on Bilinda’s fret hand for a full minute. It never moves.

It’s gotten so loud, it’s like standing in the wash of a jet engine. Watching the crowd’s reactions is where it’s at now, and they break along demographic lines. White males stand with oddly satisfied smiles on their faces, as if they’re undergoing some fraternal right of passage. African-Americans seem to laugh to each other with good-natured bemusement at this arty nonsense. Hispanics and young white girls seem to take it the worst, pushing their hands to their ears with all their might, praying for it to stop.

It seems the entire festival has come to a standstill, fully immersed in the bands jet engine roar, and then, without ever so much as glancing at each other, the band jumps back into the closing song, brings it quickly to a close, and leaves the stage.

The Kills

Craig and I split briefly, him going straight to Public Enemy, me wanting to catch some of the Kills first. When I got there, the tent was packed. Much like Beirut, this is clearly an indie band with a growing, fervent following. And the band performed fine, knocking out excellent versions of U.R.A. Fever, No Wow, and Black Balloon, three of their best tracks, in the opening twenty minutes. Alison Mosshart, the female lead who’s now also singing with Jack White in the Dead Weather, is a compelling, gritty presence, with her seedy good looks and P.J. Harveyish voice, though I have to admit her incessant spitting on stage was a little much…after the fifth or sixth loogey, it was time to move on to…

Public Enemy

Where these guys were simply great, laying down grooves that felt beyond heavy. Believe it or not, given the confrontational nature of much of their music, these guys were extremely classy on this night, too. Gave a heartfelt shout out to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which they stated straight up is doing a better job preserving and celebrating the greats of twentieth century African-American music than their own communities.

Starting with a blistering rip through Channel Zero, through to a powerhouse close out with Fight the Power…there wasn’t a weak moment in the forty minutes that I caught.

The Cure

Sadly, that would be it for Craig and I. As much as I would have loved to stay for the Cure, we were spent and had a two-and-a-half hour drive home. We did pause to catch a fine rendition of Pictures of You, but then it was off to the car.

Coachella 2009 for us was now complete.

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