Harnessing the energy of a rare minute in which a disparate range of artists from the past and present can look to the future and plausibly congregate on the same bill, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California has steadily become world renowned as the proverbial melting pot, tripping over itself with cultural icons both obscure and ubiquitous. Yet, refreshingly, the ever-raging battle between the hip and the passé holds no water here; probably with the aid of some sort of steps, Wee Man from Jackass is free to rub shoulders with Hollywood mysterio and prosthetic penis salesman Vincent Gallo while half of Alice in Chains can be found bearing witness to the return of Crowded House as Ghostface Killah eggs Tommy Lee on stage just to call him a "legendary shit." And so Coachella goes…
Lollapalooza mastermind Perry Farrell quite fittingly blows open Friday's main stage with flamboyant panache. His new, typically carnivalesque endeavour Satellite Party might be more directly engaging than the off-the-wall style of Porno For Pyros, with all their belly dancer quirks and world music nuances, but Jane’s Addiction's 'Stop!' was always going to be the highlight if he threw it in the mix. Soon enough and in more ways than one, the high-pitched crooning of Farrell makes way for the biggest thing to come out of Sheffield since steel. Having only just re-emerged with Your Favourite Worst Nightmare at the start of the week, Arctic Monkeys charge the guitars and fire the drums like machine guns while Alex Turner does his bit for Comic Relief with another medley of George Fornby meets John Power.
Monkey business finished, the UK contingent continues its invasion as The Jesus and Mary Chain rear their heads for the first time in 10 years. Finally, Coachella has secured the services of one of Scotland's most increasingly name-checked outfits (having reportedly knocked on the reinforced doors of the Cocteau Twins in the past). "Awright? How's it gawn?" deadpans Jim Reid. With little exchange of small talk, the JAMC simply stand rigid for the next hour and toss out classics like ‘Snakedriver’ as though it hadn’t just come back into some sort of nostalgic fashion. That the darkly clad outfit choose to debut a new track - which carries every ounce the brooding majesty their disciples might hope for after all this time - is an unexpected bonus, as is the unlikely recruitment of Scarlett Johansson for a faithful enough tackle of ‘Just Like Honey’.
Also taking the awkward steps from the silver screen to the microphone tonight, is, no lies, Danny DeVito, making a downright fucking peculiar appearance in the Mojave tent to usher Peeping Tom onstage. DeVito makes way for Dan The Automator and a high pedigree supporting cast of soul singers and MCs to flank a Mike Patton in mischievous mood. "That's the last time I'm gonna check on you bastards!" he cautions, having made sure that nobody died six songs in to a rugged crash diet of pop, hip-hop, soul and thrash. "We've got work to do!" But does the fusion work? ‘Don't Even Trip’. Quickly succeeding the stellar genre acrobatics of Patton, kindred spirit El-P appears every inch the most dangerous man of the hour. "Y'all want some happy music? Well we don't have nunna that shit." Clad in Guantanamo orange and framed by instrument-wielding masked militia, the Defjux supremo plunges into the colossal ‘Deep Space 9mm’ and coughs up the odd nugget from Funcrusherplus before spiralling further into an intoxicating abyss of drums, samples and general chaos with some of the cream from his recent solo studio return.
Meanwhile, out of the tents, into the fray and catching them half way into their slot, Sonic Youth seem to be trundling through one of those psychedelic nights where they discard with even approaches to any kind of conventional song structure, opting to pump out a lethargic haze which, depending on the way the day was travelled, can only signal sink or swim for us punters. And so it's on the creatively promiscuous Björk to turn the tables and give up the goods. Ever strong in voice and with the stage set in a complimentary tone to the heady textures of Volta, ‘Pagan Poetry’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Army of Me’ are all revamped into some sort of experiment in synchronised light and sound from the ‘80s. Initially a dazzling spectacle of costumes and theatrics, the over-powering theme at times detracts from the unique qualities that many of Björk's songs are afforded on record . "Sank you, so much!" the Icelandic maverick unwittingly predicts. Nearly.
Running late on the Outdoor Theatre and making himself the opening night's show closer in the process, the shape-shifting Outsider DJ Shadow faces the unenviable task of keeping the ever growing legion of Endtroducing acolytes glued to the same field as any tourists recruited by his recent foray into Hyphy - a genre currently championed by MC Hammer, no less. Sure enough, Shadow finds a middle ground without compromising a thing, by attaching U.N.K.L.E numbers to recent collaborations with Cage and David Banner, as well as weaving in essentials like ‘Organ Donor’ and ‘Six Days’ to leave this Friday night crowd partially divided but ultimately engaged.
It's early Saturday afternoon, and Glen Hansard is taking nobody's shit from atop his Outdoor Theatre pulpit. "Is that the fookin' competition... is that Wheatus?" The Frames frontman half-jokingly demands as Fountains of Wayne make themselves known from across the field in between songs. "I'm hangin’ on by threads!" he howls, turning it up a notch with sporadic angst-filled lyrical attacks that run the risk of cooking this afternoon set into something equally as intense as the heat they're delivering it in. But, comparatively gentler fare like 'The Stars Are On the Ground' and the ultimate Springsteen ode 'Too Many Sad Words Make A Sad Sad Song' confirm a marked sincerity that knocks the comparative whimsy of their mainstage opponents into a cocked hat.
"What? There's no sound...maybe I've gone deaf!"
So frets Regina Spektor as she battles with the PA. Easy Reg, it ain't that loud. Lingering heavily on her vowels and singing bits of songs in Russian, Spektor brings a commanding breeze to the main Coachella stage with her humble and apparently deeply personal ballads that shine a funny kind of light on the darker side of life. Conversely, over in the Gobi tent, Tom Morello's alter ego The Nightwatchman takes a more character-driven approach, calling Billy Bragg and Joe Strummer into consciousness with rebel folk songs that make no bones about a fucked up situation. It's all struggling miners and picket lines, though these riffs could have been masterminded by Rick Parfitt as opposed to one of the most celebrated guitar virtuosos of recent decades, but it all seems to be a part of the act. The faux Texan accent and occasional self mocking might bring a touch of comic relief, but the message is clear in the simplicity of Morello's one man revolution.
Ushering in the desert dusk, the Casady sisters know a thing or two about the juxtaposition of night and day. While everybody else is apparently clambering to bring a slice of Hollywood to their stage, as the ominously monikered Ghosthorse and Stillborn CocoRosie need look no further than home and call out their mum to lend them her vocal chords. The girls and Mama Casady are joined by a beat-boxer as blurred and grainy footage of kids cartoons, burning houses and exorcism attempts scroll by in the background. From the get-go it genuinely feels as though something supernatural is fucking with them for playing with religious imagery one too many times, as they're dogged by bursts of freak desert winds and irregular feedback until the song is over. Putting the fantasy back into music is an understatement.
Keeping it considerably less surreal, Ghostface Killah digs deep inside the vault of Wu Tang. "We got hits for days!" he repeatedly points out, probably for a longer sum total of time than he actually plays any. Accompanied by the usual on stage crew of 20, though only three of them actually do anything, Ghostface lands a classic-riddled medley of ‘Triumph’, ‘4th Chamber’, ‘We Made It’ and ‘Shimmy Shimmy Ya’ with zeal as well as massive holes where the likes of GZA or U-God would usually interject. Though Pretty Toney and co exhibit symptoms of ADD when they refuse to play any songs all the way through, set highlight ‘Run’ sees Ghostface in unstoppable form, ducking, twisting and sliding, demonstrated both on stage and within his lyrical finesse.
A world apart from the tribulations of Tony Starks; a shyer protagonist, Win Butler, appears to have completely recovered from his recent throat problems to get stuck into the first few rows of a few dozen thousand admiring fans during ‘No Cars Go’. Possibly the most admiring attendee however (and about the only member of the band who isn’t visibly welling up at the sound of the song), is Butler’s wife Regine, flicking her eyes over at her spouse during a superb accordion solo with a proud smile. There’s no question that this is Arcade Fire’s playground, and they own the day hands down.
Following the hyper Sunday lunchtime spit n' sawdust saloon tunes of Tapes n' Tapes, short of the increasingly more plausible idea of Kyuss popping out from a behind a palm tree at any given minute, there is none more appropriate a band to be whipping up this desert storm than Grizzly Bear. Shrugging off the blind idiocy of the jocks who whoop and cheer just because they've got a song called 'Spring Break', the Warp-signed collective's tripped-out percussion becomes the stuff that pounding juggernauts are made of as their take on psychedelia intensifies by the minute. Swiftly picking up the post-rock mantle for the afternoon, the sprawling palette of Explosions In The Sky gently slow burns, swoons and eventually crashes into euphoric crescendos when it fancies, occupying some brittle middle ground between the new-found brutality of Mogwai and the ethereal heights of Envy. "These guys need a singer," some Beavis-looking loudmouthed ambience destroyer insists throughout their gig. Wrong.
Following Explosions on the main stage, having released the album of their career last year, it's a small shame to see that The Roots are still missing the elusive Dice Raw and Malik B from their Coachella line-up. Instead, the ever flexible ?uestlove, Hub and co lend their instruments to reconstructing Sabbath's 'Iron Man' and Dylan's 'Masters of War' very early on before they flirt with their own material for any length of time. Although the mood remains light and the occasionally monotonous Black Thought can always pull off 'Here I Come', 'The Seed', 'Don't Feel Right' and 'The Next Movement' regardless of any other vocal personnel he might have on board, it feels as though should have been the time to put their Game Theory to the test.
Back in the Mojave tent, the covers keep coming and the hips swing as those Brazilian cats CSS tackle L7's 'Pretend We're Dead' in lively discotheque fashion before Lovefoxxx hands over to her betrothed and his mop topped mob. "If you're not out in the desert, in the middle of fucking nowhere, then you're not comin' in!" Klaxons blag their way in amongst the heavyweights with ease. Hard bass and deadly beats characterise both ‘The Bouncer’ and ‘Atlantis to Interzone’ in a way that makes your stomach rumble. Glowsticks are tossed back and forth, yet that self-made ‘nu-rave’ slogan still feels like an absolute piss take. Be realistic: were Praga Khan ever this good? Still, while we're on the subject, Klaxons: any chance of a crack at 'Injected With A Poison' next time?
From Old Blighty's brightest hopes to New Zealand's oldest guard. If ever the dissolution of a band felt final, then the bowing out of Crowded House at Sydney Opera House ten years ago should have defined the textbook. But then, we live in an era when The Eagles make new records and Shaun Ryder complains that "there's people smoking fookin' crack" on his stage when the Happy Mondays take the Sahara Tent tonight. Tellingly, 'Don't Dream It's Over' is shunted to the front of Crowded House's set, whilst other staples like 'Four Seasons In One Day' and 'Distant Sun' (my fave – Ed) are conspicuous by their absence, as is the much-mooted appearance of brother Tim. A lacklustre return – let’s hope they ring the bells next time.
As Rage Against The Machine approach to wind up Coachella 2007 in bombastic style, Zack de la Rocha jogs on stage like a pent-up slugger and one bar of 'Testify' relays with ease the notion that he's ever the furious poet. Strolling ‘Down Rodeo’, ‘Calm Like A Bomb’ and looking for ‘Freedom’ with a heightened passion, the reclusive one reveals nuances in his vocal style that can only come with a little age in order to communicate new twists on those old venomous assaults. That some eye rolling sense of utter disbelief sneaks its way in to trigger a guffaw as he recalls, "Movin' to '92... still in a room without a view" is inevitable, all present struggles considered. Advocating the trial, hanging and shooting of the current US administration "just like any other war criminal" during the apocalyptic chaos of the bridge to 'Wake Up', it's clear that the rest can "drop the hits like de la, oh, or get the fuck off the commode." Whether it was the politics or just the tunes that you were after tonight, it appears that none walk away from the battle of Coachella dissatisfied. "Keep on fighting," de la Rocha urges as a crowd of thousands disperse. By the look in his eyes, he might hunt down anybody here who doesn't.