“It’s the homeland!” one of the girls on the hotel shuttle yelped as we neared the festival. It really begged the question — who is the most common Coachella archetype? The only data I have to cull from is my experience from last year’s first weekend, but the situation was vastly different. Then, I went out west for the show without a media wristband or a hotel room. I camped amongst vets with Carpoolchella and other accoutrement decorating their vehicles, with the full skill set of how to survive the weekend. My best friend was my travel buddy and we were clear rookies: We might have had the foresight to bring wet wipes but the rest of our preparations were meager at best. But the greatest resource we had throughout the entire weekend was each other. When you’re out in the desert, surrounded by costumed co-eds and other people not entirely there because they think it’s rad to spend the whole day seeing awesome bands, you need a friend.
I’m pretty much on my own this year — although, shout out to Carl from Idolator, the other half of this two-person coach party — and it forces you to really take samples of who genuflects at the altar of the sun-soaked party gods and who is there to see! bands!. My wariness was exacerbated by a whole mess of people getting excited to see A$AP Rocky. I really wanted to check out Aesop Rock’s set in the Outdoor Theater just to see which percentage of people walked away in disappointment when the Pretty Motherfucker never took the stage.
But even though I’m here to report on the scene, the bands are what make it most robust. I caught the tail-end of Justin Vernon’s the Shouting Matches in the Gobi tent, expecting to be there just in time for the moody, electro&B Poliça of Minneapolis. As they prepared for their set, bassist Chris Bierdan appeared to have trouble with the autotune levels on his mic. Vernon popped out from backstage and seemed to conjure the vox fx from out of nowhere as he cooed into the hardware. My thoughts bled snark: “‘Who taught you how to finesse that autotune level?’ ‘Yeezy taught me.’” It was an imperative, though, because Bierdan’s vocals are more than mere back-ups for lead singer Channy Leaneagh’s punk rock Sadeisms. She contributes most of the electronic bits of their tunes and the band is rounded out with two drummers, Drew Christopherson and Ryan Olson. At points, the music is completely melodic, percussive rolling thunder and it bolsters Leaneagh’s siren call. When they closed out their set with new material, Vernon was back. “He sings on this one,” Leaneagh announced. He? Of course! Olson and Leaneagh were in the indie soft rock Gayngs with him. Six degrees of side projects?
Speaking of which, after that I caught a bit of Divine Fits at the Outdoor Theater. The entire band was uniformed in black jeans and t-shirts, looking like a Rock Band. Their riffs wafted into the pre-evening haze and they quipped for the audience like old friends. Keyboardist Alex Fischel told the crowd the performances were meaningful for him because he had a seven-year stretch of attending as a fan. From where I stood, their crowd seemed sparse and mostly docile.
Coachella set times and stages are sometimes a little confusing. Retreating from the patchy crowd for Divine Fits, I was astonished and stoked to find a packed tent for Vancouver punkers Japandroids. The only tip I had about their crazy energy has been relayed to me by David Bevan, whose article about them from last summer is still one of the best features on them on the Internet. The band’s presentation recalls so many basement shows I saw as a young kid. It warmed my heart, especially to hear how striking and varied they can make their “oh-oh-oh”s and “whoa-whoa-whoa”s. I got a text from Carl, who was somewhere else in the tent relaying the same sentiments and I told him that if I were 15, this band would be a huge problem for me. Their live show is so endearing, they just might become one, anyway.
Next up was my first Coachella Stage act. Tenderfoot about the festival I am no more, but that doesn’t mean I still don’t have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from the 2Pac hologram and the rest of the gridlock-induced mind games that come from watching bands on the main stage. Earlier this year, we wondered about how Passion Pit could sell out Madison Square Garden but from the hordes of people swarming to the stage in skip-dance fashion, the reason was clear: People like to feel good. I left to watch a bit of Palma Violets’ virulent stage presence before heading back to the main space to watch one of my old favorites, Modest Mouse.
It’s been approximately fifteen years since my one single attempt to see Modest Mouse live. They were touring It’s A Long Drive For Someone With Nothing To Think About, so I was beyond delighted to approach their set hearing the opening riffs of album kick-off “Dramamine.” The sound was very thin and it was nearly impossible to hear Isaac Brock’s banter. At one point, I really just wanted to yell “RUDE!” at the nearby Local Natives set, but it’s not their fault that the two marquee stages are just close enough that one can potentially drown out the other’s sound. Such was the case for Modest Mouse. I didn’t miss Brock sing “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King, which felt a little bit like a jab at the care-free vibes of the crowd. The guy behind me commented on Brock, “He is a total drug addict and alcoholic. What a badass.” And that’s why Brock is singing the song of “no-worries” because that’s the kind of attitude gurgling throughout the crowds. The guy then wondered if Johnny Marr would show up to do songs from From We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank but he didn’t and Modest Mouse’s set was to be over pretty soon and they hadn’t played their breakout hit yet. Brock tried to get the crowd to hum in unison for his own kicks, but from where I stood, it seemed to be mostly ignored. Things started to get weird and people began to amble away. I honestly thought this meant they would revert back to the way the set started and we’d get a bit of “Cowboy Dan” or “All-Nite Diner” but no such luck, even though the group seemed most alive when the songs they played required bent-guitar strings. They closed with “Float On,” the sound getting shut off halfway through for going over the allotted time. They played the rest of the song in silence, even when organized tried to pull them off. That is pretty badass.
The real tough-cool was coming later in the night via Nick Cave’s first of two performances at this weekend’s festival, but before that were trappers TNGHT at the Gobi tent. Protip: The safest place to stand while watching a dance music act and taking notes is next to the people who have totally overdone it and are passed out on the floor and impenetrable to nearly having their faces stomped out, booming bass, and collective “whoop”-ing every time Hudson Mohawke and Lunice dropped a Kanye track. And boy, were there Kanye tracks. Their set was comprised of their self-titled EP and new messy track “Acrylics,” dotted with HudMo’s new bossman’s output. The sleeping EDMies were eventually awake and terrified and meandered away to be replaced by a girl with a rainbow-glowing hula hoop. Her swirls were impressive and I imagine that if you’re partaking with the appropriate party favors for the situation, the colorful swirls with TNGHT’s roiling tracks were quite the spectacle, but it reminded me that if I ran fast enough, I could see Karen O.’s rock ’n roll theatrics on the other side of the grounds. I only caught the last couple songs in Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ set, “Maps” and “Heads Will Roll,” but O. is forever at 100%, snarling punk queen that she is, that even just the two, totally polar tracks satiated.
Another iconic frontperson was about to be making waves back around where I had left TNGHT, so I was due back to machete-chop my way through the sea of concert-goers. I’m a former regular rider of NYC’s Metro North commuter rail, having had to deal with the throngs of people in Grand Central station during rush hour, so my Human-Frogger skills are fairly impeccable, but you throw only the light of glow sticks and a ton of fucked up people into the mix and things get a little sticky. But after seeing Nick Cave, who I have always peripherally loved, perform with the Bad Seeds at SXSW, you know you bust your ass to see a rare, one-time-only — well, two if you count next weekend — performance from his band Grinderman. Whatever is the part of the body that inspires you to perform theatrically is where Cave gets his inspiration for the Bad Seeds, but for Grinderman, his energy comes straight from his crotch. Their sets are informed by pure carnality. At once, Cave, Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis, and the rest of them are just bleeding gnashing rock ’n roll into the crowd and at another, Cave turns into a maestro of terror. There was one oddly placed, sorority-hippie sitting on a guy’s shoulders during the set. Eventually, Cave began to sing to her. She acted demure, her face reading a sheen of pleasure from the acknowledgment, but Cave was relentless and you could see from the screen that she was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the attention and eventually hopped off. Cave continued to address the crowd with chilling energy. The real highlight was their bloodcurdling, howling rendition of “No Pussy Blues” and the encore of their eponymous song, with Warren proving that maracas can actually be menacing.
When they were done, I was faced with the hardest decision of the whole night. Do you just conclude with the incendiary violence of Grinderman, or do you stick it out for the classic Stone Roses, Earl Sweatshirt, Trent Reznor’s audio-visual How to destroy angels_, or Tegan & Sara, who have such an amazing new record on their hands with Heartthrob? Like most savory things, a little bit of sweet to end the night can be delightful, so the Quinn sisters won me over. They opened by running through a bit of the album, dedicating “I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” to “all the crazy ex-girlfriends and boyfriends in the audience. You psychos!” When they finally got into “Back In Your Head,” I witnessed the biggest, yet still surprisingly sparse, sing-a-long I had seen the whole night. If they had played a set earlier in the day, before the molly comas, I truly believe the entire Polo Grounds would have heard the words. The girls around me, bouncing in their flower crowns, managed to drown out the nearby Stone Roses, but they sounded a bit like stray cats. You could really hear how special the Quinn sisters’ voices are — it’s almost as if anyone could do it, but it’s specifically theirs and hard to duplicate. Unfortunately, their unbridled loveliness was tempered by the intense, strobe-like light show. Its jitteriness could only be matched, perhaps, by the epilepsy-trigger video for Kanye West & Jay-Z’s “Paris.” I have only seen five seconds of that video, but it resulted in two hours of nausea. It was time for me to go and rest up for a ton of rap music, double-Dischord Ians (the Evens and the Make-Up), and the Postal Service.
Check out Blur’s headlining set below, and photos of Friday’s highlights by Andrew Youssef in the gallery above.