Sunday, May 1, 2011

Coachella 2011 - Saturday Day Two Review

As I wrote earlier, Saturday was to my ears far and away the best day of the 2011 festival, a classic rock flavored smorgasbord with several fantastic offerings.

Here are my thoughts on the Saturday performances I was lucky enough to see.


1. Foals 3:15 - 4:05 Mojave Tent: My favorite set of the entire weekend.  I had high hopes going in, feeling the best tracks off their jammy, anthemic second LP Total Life Forever would translate explosively live...but Foals ended up exceeding my expectations.  I just had no idea the band possessed such virtuosic instrumental talent.  Listening to their rhythm section alone was worth the price of admission for the entire festival...if there was a more dynamic drummer at Coachella than Jack Bevans, I didn't see him (and I caught some damn good ones), and the dueling, harmonics heavy guitar work from Jimmy Smith and lead singer Yannis Phillippakis was almost as mesmerizing.  Halfway through, they launched into the one-two TLF punch of Afterglow and Spanish Sahara...both numbers absolute knockouts, and I figured after that the rest of the show would be anticlimactic.  Wrong.  They closed with an unbelievable rendition of Two Steps, Twice that including Phillipakis crowd surfing for a second time, (he had earlier jumped in with his guitar without missing a beat).  They're not the most endearing of acts, Yannis conveys more of an aloof macho pose than a personable one, and is just an adequate singer, but their insane chops more than make up for it, and no other band brought as much mojo to a Coachella stage in 2011. 

A great, great set.

Here's two videos from that set, Afterglow and that killer closing number.


2. Elbow 7:00 - 7:50 Mojave Tent: This was a set I was totally pumped for, having felt the band was two years overdue for a Coachella appearance following the release of their marvelously romantic 2008 album The Seldom Seen Kid. All I have to say now is better late than never.  Doling out their warm, humanistic take on Brit Pop and Gabrielesque prog, this was as simultaneously moving and epic a set as the 2010 festival produced.  Pulling songs from each of their last four albums, including hypnotic set opener The Birds and gorgeous ballad Lippy Kids from latest release Build A Rocket, Boys, Grounds For Divorce from Seldom Seen Kid, and Leader Of The Free World's Station Approach, every moment of this set seemed a textbook example of how to blend intimacy with arena-rock caliber catharsis...each song starting at a slow burn but ending in overpowering crescendo bigger than most metal bands are able to attain. Lead singer Guy Garvey was an engaging, hammy presence throughout, regularly trying to instigate clap-alongs or pointing to individual audience "Joe Biden"-style when not raising his arms skyward beckoning us to sing along.  But the best was clearly saved for last with closer One Day Like This, one of the finest sing-along tracks of the last half decade.  One had to be present and high on the good vibes in the Mojave at that moment to fully understand how well this song played, but hopefully these videos for this track and Station Approach give a small sense of what I found to be the second most rewarding set of the entire festival.

3. The Love Language - Noon - 12:30 The Outdoor Theater: Along with Delorean, New Pants, and one or two others, this was the biggest surprise set of the weekend for me.  I knew nothing about this east coast band on Superchunk's Merge label, but their set to open the Outdoor was fantastic.  Charming and a bit on the clean cut side, they delivered a romantic brand of indie pop not unlike that practiced by The Walkmen or DeVotchKa.  They're a touch less seasoned and more conventional than those acts, but the band's onstage chemistry was excellent, and lead singer Stuart McLamb's voice was pure gold on this day, cutting through like a diamond and rendering every song a priceless little live gem.

Here's a fan video of their performance of Manteo.

4. Broken Social Scene - 6:05 - 6:55 The Main Stage: The moment Broken Social Scene took the Main, a palpable wave of good cheer swept over Coachella grounds.  On record, the band can be quite edgy, if not outright crass, but Saturday, as the many bend members stepped out dressed more for a pool party than a prime time slot at America's premiere festival, then only vibe emanating from the stage was "Relax, we're going to have a great, chill time."  Opening with World Sick, and then driving through a fantastic sounding set that pulled primarily from most recent outing Forgiveness Rock Record and their 2003 classic You Forget It In People, the band was in top form start to finish.  Just a perfect set to get the evening portion of the 2011 festival's off to a great, warm start.

Here's a fan video of the band's performance of 7/4 Shoreline.

5. The Arcade Fire - 11:20 - 1:00 AM The Main Stage:  I missed the opening half hour of the Arcade Fire's headlining set checking out other acts, but the last hour plus I saw was excellent.  While the fine but intentionally less dynamic material from 2010's The Suburbs proved to be a touch of an energy drag on the set as I expected, the band did a good job interspersing them with their far punchier, more anthemic earlier material, and the searingly intense Win Butler, prone to occasional moments of off-putting insecurity, was far more relaxed and confident this time out than when I last caught the band in a dual headlining set with LCD Soundsystem

But as I have already alluded to, the magic moment in this set came just before the encore. As the band launched into its always top live track Wake Up from debut Funeral, two thousand remote-controlled beach balls fell from above the stage scaffolding upon the crowd.  At first fans were actively bouncing them here and there, but as people started to realize they contained wireless controlled light sources that were in sync with the rest of the light show, the balls became collectors items.  One of my favorite memories of this night was the exit, seeing an SUV pass by with all the kids inside smashed against the windows to make room for the three or four beach balls they had also stuffed inside.

Anyway, here's Coachella's official video of that initial moment.


6. The Tallest Man On Earth 3:00 - 3:50 Gobi Tent: I had tremendous luck this year in that for two of my worst head-to-head conflicts Twin Shadow & Menomena on Sunday, and The Tallest Man and Foals on Saturday, the first band out of the gate for each of those pairings went on five to ten minutes early, so instead of just catching the first song of this engaging young solo Swede who sounds almost exactly like early acoustic Dylan, I was able to grab his first three...and all were tremendous.  Alone hunched over his acoustic guitar, The Tallest Man doesn't do anything but play and sing, but his songs are first rate, and the sound was killer all the way back to the end of the tent.  It killed me to walk away, but as profiled earlier, I ended up walking away to something even better with the Foals.  Still, from what I caught, a glorious set.

Missed this one which came later, but here's The Tallest Man's performance of one of his livelier numbers, The King Of Spain.  The crowd was clearly into it.

7. The Kills - 7:50 - 8:40 Outdoor Theater: Opening with fan favorite No Wow, and charging through blistering covers of the top flight best songs from their excellent 2011 release Blood Pressures, this Kills set was head and shoulders better than their just solid 2009 Mojave Tent set.  Allison Mosshart was a captivating dark mistress of ceremonies as always, but first and foremost, it was those great new songs...DNA, Future Starts Slow, Satellite, The Last Goodbye...and the richer, broader spectrum of sounds and styles they add to the mix, that gave this set such full, satisfying feel.

Here's the concert video of their performance of DNA.

8. Freelance Whales 2:10 - 2:50 Mojave Tent: I caught about twenty minutes of this very nerdy, Queens, New York based act's midday set, and for the most part it was twee indie-pop bliss...engaging vocal harmonies, stereotypical oddball Aughts instrumentation, and lots of sunny, happy-to-be-here energy.

Here's their opening number, Generator 1st Floor.


9. Delta Spirit - 4:05 - 4:55 Outdoor Theater: Walked up for maybe the last fifteen minutes of San Diego-based, rootsy indie rockers Delta Spirit's set, but was lucky enough to catch their performance of both Trashcan and set closer Children, my two favorite tracks from their appealing debut Ode To Sunshine.  Lead singer Matthew Vasquez was in very strong voice, and Trashcan, with yes, a band member indeed  playing a trashcan lid, was one of the best single song performances of the entire festival.

Unfortunately, it appears to be one of the few songs no fan has captured and posted to youtube, so here's their rendition of Strange Vine instead.

10. Erykah Badu - 4:50 - 5:40 Mainstage: As with Lauryn Hill the day before, only had a few moments to catch the start of Erykah's set before racing over to catch Glasser, but wish I had been able to stay for more.  Like Lauryn, she came across as the seasoned soul performer in full command of her stagecraft and the audience.

Here's the engaging introduction to her set.

11. Glasser - 5:15 - 6:00 Gobi Tent: I got an up close position for this arty L.A. act whose debut Glasser has always felt to me like an electronica variation on Florence And The Machine's debut Lungs, and when lead singer Cameron Mesirow took the stage in a purple leotard further en wrapped head-to-toe in sheer leftovers from a wedding gown train, and then launched into a fine take on the band's best song Apply, things were off to a great start.  But after that, things tapered off quite a bit. Mesirow was in solid voice and threw in some goofy slow dance moves to generate some interest, but she's got a long, long way to go to reach Florence Welsh's magnetism as a performer, and while it was kinda cool to watch the band work all their sounds through a midi-pickup hooked to a guitar, it felt as if the band was unable to elevate their material.  The goods songs, like Home and Mirrorage, played well, weaker tracks came off dull. So mixed feelings the band, like their sound, and a few very good songs to the set...but they've got a long way to go in terms of delivering a top flight live show.

Here's a fan captured video of Apply.

12. Bright Eyes - 7:20 - 8:10 The Main Stage: Only caught the closer, but it was a fun one, Road To Joy, the ranting emo-folk closer to 2005's I'm Wide Awake, It's Morning.

Here it is.

13. Mariachi El Bronx - Noon - 12:45 Mojave Tent: Shades of The Almighty Defender's reverent irreverence from the year before.  I caught the lively final ten minutes of this alter ego performing outlet for veteran punk act The Bronx, and though it felt odd at first to watch a bunch of punky white boys playing traditional Latin music, their commitment was sincere, and the set proved to be a nice stylistic respite from the broad number of indie and dance/electronica acts that dominated my checklist.

Here's a taste.

14. Big Audio Dynamite - 9:05 - 10:00 The Outdoor Theatre: Mixed results from Mick Jones post-Clash outfit.  Great opening number, and E=MC2 was stellar, but rest of the set was just okay.  Unlike the previous three years, where older acts like Prince, Roger Waters, Paul McCartney, Portishead, My Bloody Valentine, Pavement, Gil Scott Heron, Public Enemy, and X set the performance bar for their weekends, 2011 saw the older acts struggling to deliver just middle of the pack shows. A decent enough but unremarkable set.

Here's E=MC2.

15. Thao With The Get Down Stay Down - 1:55 - 2:35 The Outdoor Theatre: I only caught one song from Thao's set, but it was a highly enjoyable rollick through Know Better Learn Faster's party starter Cool Yourself.  The group was a bit ragged and out of tune, but Thao's voice had a ton of character to it, and the whole band seemed to be having a great time.

16. Raphael Saadiq - 11:00 - 11:45 The Gobi Tent: I was not familiar with Saadiq's music before the festival, and I only saw a few minutes of this set on my way from The London Suede over to The Arcade Fire, but the few minutes I did catch were more than enough to tell me this is a band to catch live down the road.  Not sure what song I walked in on, maybe Stone Rollin', but this soul act was positively tearing it up.

17. The New Pornographers - 6:35 - 7:25 The Outdoor Theatre: I'm a fan, but I've always felt this Canadian power-pop super group is best experienced on record, and the ten minutes or so I witnessed between Broken Social Scene's and Elbow's knockout sets did little to change this notion.  But I do have to say the band sounded fine and was breaking out some of the best tracks from their increasingly rich arsenal, including Your Hands Together and Twin Cinema's Singing Spanish Techno, which they were generous enough to play while I was attending.

But of all the tracks they played this day, it's their classic Gen X dismissal of the Baby Boomer set that I most wish I had caught.

18. EE - 11:50 A.M - 12:35 The Gobi Tent: I only caught the opening and closing numbers of this bizarre Japanese act that mixes DJ, rock 'n' roll, and something like Kabuki Theater elements, but both were memorable if not always comprehensible. The opener which was performed not by the band, but by a troop of synchronized robots courtesy of The Creators Project dancing to a pre-recorded track.  A gimmick for sure, but fun.  The closing number saw the band doing what they do in their own inscrutable style.

Here's two videos from that set...a quick snippet of the robots, and then a performance proper.

19. The London Suede 10:40 - 11:30 The Mojave Tent: I saw two numbers from this recently reunited veteran UK act's set, and though unfamiliar with the bulk of their discography, they were really tearing into it, delivering their hard-rocking variation on 90s-flavored Brit Pop. The crowd was really into it, too.

Here's a sample of their high energy performance.

20. Cults - 1:55 - 2:40 The Gobi Tent:  I stopped in for about fifteen minutes of this pop act's set. Reminiscent of so many other acts out there right now delivering the same summery female-fronted 60s pop like My Maudlin Career, Best Coast, The Like, and Vivian Girls, just to name a few, I found their bandwagonesque lack of originality a touch depressing, but have to admit their hooks got to me nonetheless, and they sounded good, even if their energy could have been better.

Here's their performance of Go Outside

21. Trampled By Turtles - 1:30 - 2:15 The Main Stage: I only had a couple of minutes to take in a number from this contemporary bluegrass outfit out of Duluth, Minneasota...but it was a couple of minutes well spent.   If you haven't heard these guys before, they really do have an interesting take on melding backwoods genres with a decidedly thrashy, rock 'n' roll sensibility, and are well worth checking out.

Here's just a snippet of Help You off their latest and best release Palomino to give a sense of their engaging, rapid fire approach.


22. The Radio Dept. - 4:05 - 4:50 The Gobi Tent: Don't get me wrong, I really like The Radio Dept. and their smooth, gentle take on dream pop.  I enjoyed last year's Clinging To A Scheme, and I've been loving this year's career retrospective Passive Aggressive.  But a live band this ain't.  Timid, introspective and virtually motionless on stage...they're a tough band to dig in a live setting no matter how great they sound (and they sounded damn good on this day.)  Bottom line - some bands are meant to be heard on record only...this is one of them!

But since the fan clips are available on Youtube, here's their Coachella 2011 rendition of A Token Of Gratitude.

23. Wire 8:40 - 9:30 The Gobi Tent: Maybe this is just how they are on stage.  I've never seen Wire before, but I managed to catch the opening twenty minutes of their set before moving over to Big Audio Dynamite, and to me, this felt like the most mailed-in show of the entire weekend.  The band seemed positively bored.  In fairness to them, friends of mine who stayed for the whole show thought it was one of the best of the take my opinion as just one in a broad spectrum of thoughts on this set, but needless to say, they hardly won me over.

Here's a fan video of Kidney Bingos, which gives a pretty good indication of the lackluster effort I felt the band was giving.

24. The Joy Formidable 12:55 - 1:35 The Gobi Tent: Guitarist/Singer Ritzy Bryan has this killer blank stare she lords over the audience after the last massive bar chord concludes each song.  It's compelling, but totally indecipherable, which unfortunately, also often describes The Joy Formidable's music.  Though just a trio, their 90s-flavored mix of punk, shoegaze and other anthemic alt-rock forms can build to epic scales, but it's music that often also feels unfocused, blurry and sometimes just brain dead dumb.

Basically, what you have here is a band whose chops, charisma and ambition greatly exceed their present grasp as conceptualists and songwriters.  If they can ever hone those songwriting skills to match their energy and instrumental ability (their drummer is unbelievable), we're going to have a major force on our hands that could be headlining Coachella some year down the road, but on this day, to misquote Shakespeare, I found their set to be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."

Needless to say, the rest of the crowd loved it.

Here's Whirring, arguably the best track off their debut The Big Roar.

25. The Henry Clay People - 1:00 - 1:45 The Mojave Tent: I had been looking forward to catching some of this set all weekend.  The Henry Clay People do not produce particularly original music, but their high-energy, endearing brand of no-frills bar-band/garage rock that seems to reference all manner of bands from Springsteen to Tom Petty to Pavement to The Hold Steady fits as comfortably as an old glove without ever feeling blatantly derivative.  Unfortunately, the band just didn't seem to have it going on this day.  Boozy chuggers that should have really pulled the crowd never quite meshed, and a closing cover of Bruce's Born To Run only reinforced how far the band has yet to go.

Here's a quick sample.

26. Francis & The Lights - 12:50 - 1:30 The Outdoor Theater: I have a rule...if it sounds like something the cast members of Jersey Shore could like, I'm out.  Not as cheesy as Miguel, but only by the slimmest of margins.  Think Patrick Dempsey singing like a cross between Steve Perry and Dave Matthews over the lamest of pick-up bar disco/funk/club backings, and you've got a good idea of Francis & The Lights's sound.  They did absolutely nothing for me.

Here's a quick montage.

27. Animal Collective - 9:45 - 10:55 The Main Stage: I have another rule...the audience shouldn't have to be high or dropping acid to garner an ounce of enjoyment from your set.

Animal Collective's trippy, free-flowing sub-headliner set was without question the buzz kill not just of Saturday night, but the entire festival...just a text book example of how alienate an enthusiastic crowd and suck the life out of the party.

Standing under psychedlic, video-projecting cubes courtesy of The Creator's Project, the show definitely had a unique feel, but this band is just the worst when it comes to forging any human connection with their audience, and the set, which flowed in medley fashion for the full seventy minutes, was chock full of prolong sections of vapid, introspective noodling.

The first half-hour was awful, probably the worst, dullest half-hour of music I've ever seen at Coachella, and much of the crowd clearly felt the same way - I haven't seen a bible-caliber mass exodus from The Main Stage like the start of this show since My Bloody Valentine launched into their trademark holocaust in 2009.

Things picked up a bit around the half-hour mark, and for a fifteen minute stretch towards the end became quite interesting sonically, if not emotionally, but the damage had been done.

My least favorite Coachella set of all time.

Am I the only one out there that thinks this band's "ground-breaking," Pitchfork-endorsed aesthetic may actually be the art world's best present-day personification of "the Emperor's new clothes?" Probably, despite the numbers who bolted, I know many who loved this set...but of course, they were all stoned out of their mind.

Anyway, here's the video I found that best portrays the set's trippy vibe.  Feel free to ingest chemicals now.

To Sunday 2011 Review.

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