|The Mobile Butterfly: Coachella 2015's most enduring art exhibit!
But out of multiple reviews, hopefully a more complete picture grows, so here are my down and dirty thoughts on what I caught Week 2 of Coachella 2015, my 8th consecutive year in attendance.
WEEKEND 2'S BEST ACTS
1. AC/DC - An unexpected but in retrospect perfect old-timer headlining choice - the band couldn't have sounded better, brought out all of their arena show production tricks, and while Brian Johnson may have lost a step (though he's lost nothing with his voice), Angus remains a spry little elf whose gymnastic grounds crossing solos proved endlessly entertaining. Possibly the greatest big dumb rock band of all time did not disappoint. Nigel Tufnel would have been nothing but proud!
2. STEELY DAN - Sure, there's a reason these guys came up as studio musicians...Walter Becker may look like a nerdy Pixar animator, and watching Donald Fagen live at the piano is like watching a troubling Randy Newman/Ray Charles lab experiment gone wrong - but damn, can these guys play, and their hour long set included almost all of their biggest songs. At a festival renown for it's great sound, this was the best sounding set of all.
3. SWANS - Fifty-five minutes is for too short for a proper Swans set, arguably the best live band in the world at the moment...but the post rock legends still brought their A+ game, thrilling with thirty minute opener Frankie M, the opening moments of To Be Kind's Bring The Sun, and an astounding rendition of another new track Black Hole Man.
4. ST. VINCENT - Annie Clark's transformation over the years from compelling Heroin-chic indie belle to Bowie caliber freakazoid has been amazing to watch, and she was in absolute command for this electric, whacked-out fifty minute set drawing heavily from latest and best album, the self-titled St. Vincent
5. LYKKE LI - Always an intense, riveting performer, this swedish indie-pop goddess probably delivered the best orchestrated front-to-back set of the weekend, starting with latest album I Never Learn's quieter songs of heartbreak before crescendoing with massive performances of previous album Wound Rhyme's garage-y rockers Rich Kid Blues and Get Some.
Honorable Mentions: Brant Bjork And The Low Desert Punk Band, The War On Drugs, Caribou, Parquet Courts, St. Paul And The Broken Bones, Royal Blood, Kasabian, Sloan, Saint Motel, Florence + the Machine.
WEEKEND 2'S BEST SINGLE SONGS
1. SUN - CARIBOU - The single most massive moment I've experienced a Coachella since Sigur Ros ' Saturday night closer two years back in 2013. Always an elite master of volume manipulation - words just do not do justice to how explosive this simple, repetitive closing number played.
2. CLUB FOOT - KASABIAN - Talk about raising the roof - best crowd energy at any moment of the festival.
3. BLACK HOLE MAN - SWANS - already mentioned. Amazing song.
4. LET THERE BE ROCK - AC/DC - The Angus guitar solo that wouldn't end and crossed the grounds. Solo started with Angus on stage, continued as he moved over to a levitating platform 200 feet deep in the audience, then kept going as he ran back stage then continued soloing from the roof of their set as fire cannons burst all around him - the jam had to have gone on for 12-15 minutes and never wavered. The type of literal and figurative live fireworks you just don't get from today's younger musicians.
5. GET SOME - LYKKE LI - Another track that just swelled to epic portions before it concluded. Fabulous set closer.
Honorable Mentions: Low Desert Punk - Brant Bjork, Fergus Gallery - Allah-Las, Seagull/Vapour Trail - Ride, Eyes To The Wind - The War On Drugs, I Never Learn - Lykke Li, Aja/Reelin' In The Years - Steely Dan, Back In Black - AC/DC, Borrowed Time - Parquet Courts, Figure It Out - Royal Blood, Busy Earnin'/Time - Jungle, Doorbell - Jack White, Type - Saint Motel, Carry The Zero - Built To Spill, Wrecking Ball - Ryan Adams, Huey Newton/Your Lips Are Red - St. Vincent, Cosmic Love - Florence + The Machine.
And now for the each day's action in a little more detail!
Friday got off to a satisfying but unspectacular start. Only the sparsely attended 12:55 pm Outdoor Theatre set from former Kyuss drummer Brandt Bjork and the Low Desert Punk Band delivered A+ fireworks. And unfortunately after seeing just his two incendiary opening songs, I left to catch a bit of the slightly disappointing Eagulls, who let the drone in their drone heavy post-punk songs overpower their otherwise solid set.
Earlier that day, Los Rakas kicked things off to a spirited start with their energetic, Latin hip hop, and the Sean Lennon-fronted The Ghost Of A Saber Tooth Tiger delivered some tasty Revolver/Tame Impala flavored psychedelia. Britian’s Ruen Brothers were less effective, with their Elvis impersonator-like vocals marring an otherwise well performed set.
Amoeba records product the Allah-Las were second best of the early daytime acts. Their 60s garage rock isn’t exactly high energy, but they have that early Stones/Animals sound down cold, and actually have a some very accomplished songs too boot. Enjoyed their set quite a bit. The Reverend Horton Heat did his thing a touch earlier in the Mojave, but can’t say I was blown away…it was a well rendered pyschobilly set – nothing more, nothing less. Rounding out Saturday was an absolutely dreadful Ab-Soul (worst rap beats I’ve ever heard live), and a slightly disappointing Charles Bradley – who while solid didn’t quite deliver the ecstatic soul highlights of previous Coachella soul acts like Vintage Trouble, Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears, and Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings. Still, it was great to see this lifer whose career finally broke for him so late in the game get his moment in the spotlight.
After a break for dinner, Friday picked up big time, and ended up being one of my favorite eight hour stretches of any year of the festival.
English shoe gazers Ride starter things off with a fine late afternoon Gobi set that got a little flat in the middle but was marvelously bookended by Nowhere tracks Seagull and Vapour Trails. The War On Drugs took things to the next level with their 6:05 mainstage set, with Lost In A Dream cut Eyes Against The Wind's long instrumental wind down just the perfect accompaniment to the sun setting behind the mountains. From there, Friday night only got better…after a couple of tasty songs from blues rockers Alabama Shakes, it was off to the Mojave, where Lykke Li delivered what I've already mentioned as the 2015 fest's best sequence set…her singer-songwriter cuts from latest album I Never Learn played much larger and more dynamic live than on record, then gave way to the increasingly awesome garage rockers that dominate her second and best release Wounded Rhymes. She’s been scaling back on performances this year…but after this show, I would see her again in a heart beat.
Things got better still as we moved to the aforementioned Outdoor Theatre set by Steely Dan. All I can say is what a treat, from a band I never thought I'd see in my lifetime…No Rikki or Do It Again, but they played just about everything else I most wanted to hear, and their take on the full ten minute version of Aja was to die for.
After that, things got electronic. First, the end of Caribou…only caught one song, Sun, but as I already said, the best single song performance of the entire festival. An unforgettable performance. Todd Terje followed with a funky rendition of his playful debut It’s Album Time, performed with live accompaniment almost straight in sequence. No Bryan Ferry guest appearance for Frankie and Johnny as in Week 1, but still a fine dance/electronic set.
Finally, it was time for AC/DC, who acquitted themselves like the absolute veteran pros they are…delivering crystal clear, spot on performances of all their biggest hits. It’s funny, I was a teenager when they broke out in the 80s, and I thought they were just a dumb hard rock band at the time. I still think that, but the years have been very kind to their music, and in retrospect, thought formulaic, it’s a formula that just works. Angus in particular was in fine form (see my Let There Be Rock comments above)…Probably one of the 10-15 sets I’ve ever seen at Coachella, and the best headlining set since the Stone Roses/Blur double bill back in 2013. A great way to end the night.
|Swans kills in Saturday's finest set!
That said, teenage African-American sibling punk trio Radkey got things off to a fun start with a enthusiastic and impressively polished (given the band’s age) Ramones-like set.
Until The Ribbon Breaks, an up-and-coming electro-soul act provided no such thrills. This is the market dominant/overplayed genre of the moment, and this band showed no advancement on the form, instead they just seemed like another act jumping on the "what sells today" bandwagon. To their defense, I only stayed for about ten minutes, but those ten minutes I did see were among the dullest ten minutes I caught all day.
PHOX on the other hand, was wonderful. It’s funny how as the years pass and different genres come to dominate the lineup, one gets sick of them at their peak as they overpopulate the schedule, but as they drift out of vogue, and make up a smaller portion of the bill, as richly instrumented indie and hard rock do now, they begin to sound absolutely essential. Wisconsin's PHOX was one of just a few pure indie-sounding acts, and I found myself loving the density of their instrumentation and lead singer Monica Martin's voice. UK Synth-rock anthem-ers COASTS brought things back to more familiar 2015 territory. Their set was well performed, but I can't say I found their music to be anything more than guilty pleasure generic. Ditto for Americana act Jamestown Revival.
Then it was time for the day’s first high-priority act, Brooklyn’s highly adventurous art-punkers Parquet Courts. This was one of my favorite sets of the day, but it should have been better. Not through any fault of the band, but because Goldenvoice was a year late to this party. When a young band delivers a Top 50 of decade caliber album as Parquet Courts did in late 2013 with Light Up Gold…you don’t wait for the next release, you book them on the spot. But Coachella did wait, and two decent but lesser releases later, when the band finally shows up, it’s with a significantly diminished set list. Which is a shame, because while Ducking and Dodging, Pretty Machines, Bodies Made of and a few of their more recent other songs are all solid, they were no match live for the one two punch of Light Up Gold openers Master Of My Craft and Borrowed Time – two of the days best single song performances – to think if they had been booked the previous year that set list would have also included Stoned And Starving, Donuts Only, North Dakota and Tears O’Plenty only brings frustration over how great it could have been. Regardless, this was still one of the day’s best sets.
St. Paul And The Broken Bones were even better– a white soul act fronted by a pudgy, bespectacled Harry Carry look-alike who is nonetheless a wowzer of a front man, armed with a voice to rival Otis Redding or Al Green. Just a great tear down the roof soul set – exactly what I had hoped Charles Bradley would be the day before.
British drums and bass due Royal Blood kept the fireworks going with an overpowering, Zeppish set – hits Figure It Out and Little Monster were fantastic – and the rest of their tracks played equally huge. These guys feel destined, along with St. Paul and Sunday’s Saint Motel, to be placing their names much higher on the poster in upcoming years.
After that it was punk legends Bad Religion, quite good in the 30 minutes I caught (though a little of their always the same sounding catalog goes a long way), and Jack White protege, African-American garage rocker Benjamin Booker, who was solid, but underwhelming when compared to what Parquet Courts, St. Paul, Royal Blood, and Bad Religion had laid down the previous two hours.
U.K. electro-soul act Jungle closed out the daytime hours in fine fashion. They’ve got an interesting take on the genre, driven by group harmonies rather than a dynamic front person, and for the first two-thirds of their set, this was a slight issue. Staged with their four vocalists side-by-side up front, there was little room for the band members to move around, making for a fairly static set, but towards the end, when they hit their best songs, especially the closing double whammy of Busy Earnin’ into Time, none of that mattered. The vibe in the tent became electric. One of the day’s best moments.
Following Jungle, I caught a couple of minutes of Belle & Sebastian on the Outdoor (whom I had seen in a full a few days earlier in a delightful set at the Fox Theatre, Pomona, California, performance), then it was off for sudden rap superstars Run The Jewels in the Mojave. I’ve been tracking on this act since their inception, and after seeing act member Jamie Meline play Coachella twice before to near empty tents, once with his ground breaking 90s act Company Flow, and again under his solo moniker El-P in 2013, it was great to see him playing in front of a packed, enthusiastic tent. But I can’t say I loved the show. Jamie and Killer Mike had great energy, and their rapping was first rate, but the mix in the tent was way too heavily weighted towards the vocals…to the point where the beats were all but non-existent, a shame since their beats are fantastic. Still a solid performance, and the fans seemed to love it.
I only caught about 20 minutes of Alt-J, a middle portion of the set that started with their latest album’s best track Left Hand Free, and ended for me with their first album’s best track Tessellate. Bathed in neon green lights, the band was hard to see, but no matter…Alt-J is an "all about the sound" type of band, and though a very interesting act to put on the mainstage at this time of night, given how quiet much of their music is, their sound was fantastic in that way only the Coachella Mainstage on a calm desert night can deliver.
British dance-rock superstars Kasabian were up next, delivering their propulsive update on the Stone Roses’ classic paisley Madchester sound, and they were freakin' fantastic…one of the weekends true peaks. A Glastonbury-caliber headliner back in the U.K., their ability to overwhelm a crowd was blatantly apparent, and by the time they hit their all-time best track Club Foot midway through their set, the crowd was ecstatic. Not sure why they haven’t caught on in the states, other than that they are a rock act in an era where America’s youth doesn’t listen to rock acts, but if you get a chance to see them at a festival this year…do not skip their set. This band just knows how to thrill on stage.
From a 2015 peak to one of the weekend’s biggest disappointments: Jack White’s Saturday night headlining set.
To his credit, Jack came out gun’s blazing,, opening with a hard rocking cover of Elvis Presley’s Power Of My Love then segueing into the jammy instrumental High Ball Stepper. But the fitful, stuttering, stop-and-start nature of High Ball Stepper would prove to be the defining characteristic of the entire show. Until main set closer My Doorbell, it felt like no song was allowed to just play, every song had to break off every minute into some instrumental detour. Many people I spoke to afterwards loved it, but for myself and my friends, the show never developed any sort of momentum, and the endless instrumental breakdowns grew increasingly tedious as the show went on despite the abundant talent of the players on stage. Things got more streamlined during the encore, which included Fell In Love With A Girl, Steady As She Goes, Sixteen Saltines, Ball and Biscuit, and Seven Nation Army, and it was easily the best part of the show, just not enough to fully overcome the negative impressions that had been forged over the eighty minutes prior.
Following Jack White, I closed the night with the back-to-back extremism of 90s hardcore legends Drive Like Jehu and overpowering post-rock gods Swans. Both shows were sparsely attended…just a few hundred at each. Jehu was decent but unspectacular. Swans were staggeringly good, despite some withering, Whiplash-style nastiness band leader/crazy person Michael Gira was throwing at pedal steel guitarist Christoph Hahn after Hahn ran off stage early to grab the stool the roadies had forgot to put out for him. Only time for two and a half songs – Frankie M, the opening few moments of Bring The Sun, and then an amazing Black Hole Man, but it was without question the best set of the day and a riveting way to end the night.
Despite being arguably the lest impressive day on paper, Sunday 2015 proved to be quite a winner, particularly during the early hours, which delivered a number of excellent performances with a wonderful eclectic flow.
Canadian veteran power poppers Sloan jump started the day with the best opening set of the weekend. I’m not that familiar with their music, so don’t remember the song titles, but there was a three song stretch smack dab in the middle of their forty minute set that just killed. Bottom line, as I’ve said in years past, never sleep on the old timers – experience counts.
Sometimes - next up was Blake Sennett of Rilo Kiley’s latest project Night Terrors of 1927, another anthem-y, slightly 80s leaning act like Coasts the day before. Also like Coasts, the performances were impressive, but in service of songs that didn’t wow. After catching a few tracks, I moved on…to much better things.
Chicano Batman, a hard to pin down Mexican act that combines elements of Mariachi, garage, psychedelia, jazz, and folk were loose and chill – a great way to kill a few minutes in the early outdoor sun, and then Chapman College’s young Saint Motel were nothing short of awesome. Blending a Franz Ferdinand-ish approach with old time Cuban/Caribbean/Tropicalia accents, the performed their joyous music with the assistance of six costumed dancers. The entire set was just loads of fun, and by the time the band closed with their massive single Type, the small but enthusiastic crowd was ecstatic. Another one of the week's best shows.
Following that – I scrambled over to catch what was left of Angel Olsen’s set. The answer, not much, and her closing with White Fire, my least favorite track off of her breakthrough LP Burn Your Fire For No Witness, was a slight disappointment. But her voice was amazing, probably the finest to grace the fields this year…so still a very solid set.
Two very young (just out of their teens) impressive punk/garage acts were up next – Torrance California’s Joyce Manor on the Outdoor, and suburban Chicago act The Orwells on the Main Stage. The Orwells, with their Black Lips bad-boy vibe and devil-may-care front man Mario Cuomo, seem to have the higher commercial upside, and were a lot of fun in their best moments, but Joyce was the better of the two acts on this day…tighter, more consistent…in truth it was a very a strong performance for an act this young. Maybe the fact they were playing in front of a huge contingent of their neighborhood friends had something to do with it.
Panda Bear was a nice chill-out alternative following. I’ve never been a huge fan of his or Animal Collective’s noodle-y electro-pychedelia, and watching a non-emotive singer standing like a statue at a sequencer for forty minutes is hardly my idea of live performance fun, but I have to admit, on this day, I found his set pleasant and relaxing, and really got into the trippy videos he had playing behind him.
Emerging country-superstar Sturgil Simpson was Coachella’s one country crossover act. Hope he drew a much larger crowd the following week at Stagecoach…because while his Coachella crowd was meager, he was quite good, showing a versatile command of a number of country/bluegrass styles. His uptempo numbers in particular played strong.
Built To Spill was my first of only two must sees Sunday. Always a fan of their recorded output, I’d never seen them before…but I can’t say they wowed. Carry The Zero was awesome, it's ending jam pure bliss, and a few other killer instrumental breaks peppered the set…but overall, this one felt a little sleepy and uninspired, an effect that was amplified when they chose to close this weekend with Randy Describes Eternity instead of my all time BTS favorite Goin’ Against My Mind, which they had played the week before.
Jon Talabot justified my one foray into this year’s version of the Yuma tent. I'm a fan of him on record, but he was playing purely for the dance crowd here...just grooves, not songs…so only stuck it out for about fifteen minutes.
Jenny Lewis proved to be a pleasant enough set as the sun started to fade, working a cross of material from her solo and Rilo Kiley output. Then England's The Cribs proved to be one punk act too many for me – wasn’t in the mood for any more straight ahead bar chord rock. I stuck around for about 25 minutes, but couldn’t get into it.
Ryan Adams on the Outdoor under the last wisps of daylight proved to be the perfect antidote – one of my favorite sets of the day – especially on new ballad Wrecking Ball, which was just gorgeously rendered. Had a fun call out to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir also, who was watching from the sound booth. (A move Adam’s apologized for a few minutes later after half the crowd turned around and started snapping pictures).
Following Ryan it was off for one of the weekend’s weakest sets, courtesy of Radiohead drummer Philip Selway, making a rare trip to the front of the stage. Gotta think this booking was 90% about retaining good will with the band to secure a third Radiohead headlining slot in next year or two…cause as a front man, Philip makes a very good drummer. Would have been perfectly fine at a local coffee house, but by Coachella standards....
Sunday closed with a fine pair of female-fronted acts – St. Vincent, and the recently hobbled Florence + the Machine (Flo had broken her foot jumping from the main stage the week before.) St. Vincent killed it. I’ve seen her all three times she’s come to Coachella, and her transformation from intriguing, strong voiced ingenue to the commanding, guitar shredding, Bowie-esque freak that took the stage this night is astonishing. Working primarily from latest, fourth, and best LP, the self-titled St. Vincent, St. V was a tiny-stepping joy to watch start to finish. Easily the day’s best set.
Florence followed with a modified acoustic set to play more to her immobile status, and right away, I could tell this was going to be a much better show than her Outdoor closing set of 2012. I think being made to sit forced the super energetic performer to focus on her singing…prone to pitchiness, I’ve never heard her in better voice. Though scheduled for only 30 minutes, she ended up going a full forty-five, including a duet of Gram Parsons Love Hurts with guest Father John Misty. All in all a fitting end for my 2015 version of the the festival.
Actually, I stuck around for Drake, but he was so dreadful I refuse to consider him as the festival's final act. In all seriousness…in my eight years of attending, there has never been a worse headlining performance. As mailed in as mailed in gets.