Powering through the Californian desert in a cheapo rental car – ‘Gardenia’ on’t stereo – travelling at as close to John Garcia’s prescribed 666mph as these highway laws will allow (about 65, then), DiS wonders exactly how these Coachella cats can possibly surpass the mania of last year's top-flight affair. One hundred plus bands spread over five stages in three days, you say? A smorgasbord line up that sees long established virtuous veterans like Kraftwerk, Portishead, Prince and Roger Waters mixed up alongside such relative rookies as Battles, Black Mountain, Holy Fuck and Vampire Weekend?
Best step on it...
A bit of Battles at 3pm? Why not. DiS dodges past the bloke who used to play guitar in Snot to get in to the Gobi tent and finds Dave Konopka cooking up a dirty low-end riff to loop. Stage right, a man resembling Guy Fawkes gives a knackered looking Tyondai Braxton a cuddle before the fireworks ensue and the rest of the Brooklyn quartet ‘Race In’. John Stanier’s arms move like pistons pumping and hit their targets with precision. The unit is mesmerising as always, unpredictable in their instrumental flourishes yet somehow clinical too, and it’s all skew-whiff until they drop a fat bag of ‘Tras’ – about the closest thing to a conventional tune as they keep in their arsenal. ‘Atlas’ isn’t too shabby either, and the future has never looked so Battles.
“Who rocks the party?” demands Tim Harrington from atop a 30ft-high lighting rig. The answer is Les Savy Fav, undoubtedly, now get down from there before somebody loses an eye. “It’s hot as fuck and I need a hug…” he bawls once his feet touch the ground, so he grabs some poor kid at the side of the stage and pretends to blow him off before putting a call out for cookies and tea bags. Abstract lunacy? Certainly. Good fun, too. They play ‘Rome’, and everybody’s happy.
At first glance, the mood’s a little more sombre in the Mojave tent where Jens Lekman’s wringing out his bleeding heart with ‘I’m Leaving You Because I Don’t Love You’. The melancholy lifts though - traded off for some joyous fist-shaking disposition - when Lekman forges its compatible melody with Chairmen of the Board’s ‘Give Me Just a Little More Time’. ‘Black Cab’ threatens to return the dark cloud, the lilting refrain of “You don’t know anything, so don’t ask me questions” warring against the echoes of Architecture in Helsinki being channelled over from the Outdoor Theatre.
As DiS rushes past Alan McGee – clocked defying the 105 degree heat in a black poncho, the masochist – The Breeders take the main stage amid a wash of reverb for opener ‘Overglazed’. Kim, Kelley, Jose, Mando and new addition “Cheryl from Florida” endure sound hassles and false starts, apparently content to play these 50 minutes strictly for the shits and giggles. They indulge in the surf-pop of The Amps’ ditty ‘Pacer’, a timid version of ‘Saints’ and an ambience setting ‘No Aloha’ before they get down to business proper with ‘New Year’, ‘Cannonball’ and a cover of ‘Happiness Is A Warm Gun’.
Over on the Outdoor Theatre, the Gang of Four-styled minimalism of Vampire Weekend – as evidenced heavily by the jittery, near skeletal ‘A-Punk’ - is initially deceiving. First off, these festival debutantes dress like ‘80s yuppies en route to a tennis match, which is incidentally about the most sensible choice of attire there is for this Coachella, bar the shorts riding up the arse bit. Secondly, Ezra (any relation to Walter?) Koenig sounds uncannily like Sting when he comes close to yodelling “Look outside at the raincoats coming, say oh!” No sense in holding any of that against them though, as other songs such as ‘The Kids Don’t Stand A Chance’ and ‘Oxford Comma’ flaunt a far greater melodic versatility and attract one of the biggest draws of the day. Says Koenig: “We’ve only got one album, but we’re gonna make another one, that’s a guarantee.” DiS exclusive? Probably not.
“There goes the sun, better get your sweater on,” warns Matt Berninger in granny’s absence. The National have bigger issues to worry about though: how do you recreate the dishevelled splendour of Boxer in a wide open space? ‘Mistaken For Strangers’ segues into ‘Secret Meeting’ nicely, and ‘Squalor Victoria’ makes for an unlikely fist-pumper. Brass instruments go some way to compensate as Berninger at times struggles to project his voice. That is, until he screams himself hoarse during ‘Mr November’, making the job here a good ‘un.
Offering up the first big rock ‘n’ roll racket of the day, The Raconteurs are trying to rein in a crowd apparently distracted by the buzz of the event: “P’haps amma have ta mumble a lil sumptin’ about LL Cool J ta get yo’ attention,” speed raps Jack White. Much like most of their recorded output so far, ‘Salute Your Solution’ lays itself open to criticism for doing nothing but borrow, though it’s still an epic, Page-tastic house of riffs. ‘Blue Veins’ and ‘Level’ are equally as bombastic; big fuzzy waltzes that tonight benefit from the complimentary harmonising of White and Brendan Benson. Beyond the music, a nonsensical quandary fuelled by booze niggles DiS until the tail end of The Racs’ set: who is it that Benson uncannily resembles tonight? The bad guy from Die Hard 2, in a blonde Brian May wig, that’s who.
Aided and abetted by Rob Sonic and the dubiously monikered DJ Big Wiz, Aesop Rock bounds on stage, big burly hair poking out from either side of his baseball cap like a hip-hop Krusty. The trio deliver a set heavy on material from last year’s excellent None Shall Pass, and the allure of the title track – losing little of its density live - is enough in itself to keep this crowd’s feet glued to the floor for an hour. The rugged, street savvy manoeuvring of ‘39 Thieves’ combined with the squelching groove and convictive sloganeering of ‘Citronella’ (“kill television!”) make for big highlights that bind the crowd in head bobbing unison. The “yes, yes, y’alling” of Labor Days staple ‘Daylight’ is equally enticing, forget the lyrical complexity for a minute and you have an entirely accessible rap show.
“This is music!” claims Richard Ashcroft - once again The Verve’s roving mouthpiece - arms outstretched as he saunters on stage to the closing bars of David Axelrod's ‘Holy Are You.’ “Sounds like Bono…” counters a young Californian woman. Ashcroft goes on to billow and dither like a man possessed during perennial set staples ‘The Rolling People’, ‘Lucky Man’ and ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, but any trepidation there might be – including that inside the cynical mind of this hack - over what this Wigan quartet’s reformation might have to offer is blown out of the water by the staggering kick in the stones that is ‘Weeping Willow’. As a guy in a flipped back Yankees cap swaggers ‘round in circles, mimicking Ashcroft in the video to ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, it seems apparent that the trials and tribulations of the weekend warrior extends to Californian fratboys too. Who knew. New song ‘Sit and Wonder’ is no slouchy addition to the repertoire, with Simon Jones’s bass providing the backbone. To boot, Richard Ashcroft’s stadium banter is priceless: “Sorry about that,” he offers after ‘Space and Time’, “I was distracted and fucked that song up a bit… somebody’s done the biggest shit back here, the portaloos must have been tipped.” Stinky fun.
Meanwhile, Spank Rock proves to be no Spank Rock at all when their ailing MC is forced to pull out in the 11th hour, rendering the operation a keep fit class on crack. Closing day one’s festivities over on the Outdoor Theatre, Serj Tankian offers up the usual one-two combo of rock opera falsetto and anti-Bush rhetoric, with ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition’ providing both the best example and his biggest cheer of the night. Then there’s the Mojave tent, which sets the scene for Atlanta piss-takers, The Black Lips, who, versus Jack Johnson, are the only way for DiS to finish off this Friday night. Part garage rock, part ramshackle, their hit and miss shtick reaches its logical conclusion when they decide to set fire to their guitars. Against some odds, tonight belonged to the Verve.
“This is going to be so fucking great… I mean, Prince and all that crap?” muses VHS or BETA’s Craig Pfunder of Saturday’s line-up. No joke, but talk about easing us in gently. The Louisville quintet only has 45 minutes to impress Coachella with its largely inoffensive synth pop anthems, but there’s nothing flammable here to catch fire.
Next in line for the main stage treatment, Minus the Bear might look like the sort of hairy, wrecking ball crew you’d expect to be cranking out songs from their hardcore endeavours of yesteryear, but they know exactly what buttons to push. Jake Snider’s voice is occasionally buried in the heady mixture of chimes, melody and progressive intentions, but ultimately - like Fugazi does disco – weighty performances of ‘The Fix’ and ‘Absinthe Party at the Fly Honey Warehouse’ see to it that they avoid the descent in to MOR hell that just claimed their predecessors.
Bravely suited up in black, Nick Urata of DeVotchKa whistles to the Mariachi beat of ‘The Enemy Guns’ amid a flurry of violin to distract one and all from the beating sun. He croons on ‘I Cried Like A Silly Boy’ and gets busy with the Theremin on ‘C’est Ce La’ – accompanied by two acrobatic performers - but it falls on the haunting ‘Transliterator’ to provide the multi-lingual Denver quartet’s dramatic highlight. Unfortunately, their Balkan folk freak-out par excellence is curtailed when sousaphone player and double bassist Jeanie Schroder is overcome by the heat. The rest of us are left delirious in the wake of DeVotchKa’s set.
Realising quickly that Bonde do Role’s singer sounds a bit like Mola Ram is trying to pull her heart out, DiS makes a b-line for Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks - as if we’d miss it. Playing with his back to the sun and with a set of palm trees for a backdrop, the puns arrive thick and fast. Malkmus attempts a solo tongue-in-cheek cover of ‘Black Hole Sun’ before the Jicks dabble in the southern rock of ‘Dragonfly Pie’. “We don’t endorse torture,” he states firmly, having accidentally taken out the hearing of the first few rows with an agonising wall of feedback. But he quickly turns that promise in to a lie when he introduces ‘Out of Reaches’ by saying: “It’s time to go fuckin’ Jack Johnson on your ass!” No need for alarm; the ballad is tight, and Malkmus’s credentials as a top entertainer remain intact.
The Gobi tent, where The Cinematic Orchestra are playing, offers some respite from all the punishing rays above. But, as one instrumental melds in to another, there’s not a lot to distinguish ‘All That You Give’ from ‘Breathe’ or ‘Steadfast’ from ‘Into You’ while competent, lounge jazz vocalists become almost interchangeable. Still, there’s a lot to be said for a bit of shade and the ambience that the Ninja Tune collective creates beneath it.
It’s doubtful that Kraftwerk have spruced up their slideshow presentations any in the past 20 years, and nor should they ever have to. Flanked by dated Tron-styled graphics, the pioneering Düsseldorf quartet stands motionless as a relentless bounty of minimalist paeans to robotics, computers, and efficient transport trickle from the speakers and find their mark. ‘Man Machine’ and ‘Computer Love’ are still simple, yet stunning, while the main hook to ‘Trans Europe Express’ puts a chill down the spine whether Afrika Bambaataa rhymes over it or not. That Kraftwerk have been making this work since the early ‘70s is, y’know, mental.
Rumours abound that we’re about to witness Portishead’s one and only performance in America this year as the grand architects of unfathomable sadness make their long-awaited return to these shores. The cinematic nature of the Bristol posse’s ‘90s oeuvre is bolstered by everything new on display tonight, right down to the black and white presentation: ‘Silence’ compliments ‘Sour Times’ and joins it as one of the best Bond themes there never was, while ‘Machine Gun’ arrives in a style that T2_ soundtrack composer Brad Fiedel could plausibly have masterminded. Having successfully constructed a cage of their inimitable foreboding mood around them, _‘Threads’ sets the tone for the closing chapter perfectly. “Thank you for waiting…” says Geoff Barrow at the close of ‘We Carry On’. It’s been 11 years mate, another five minutes is quite alright.
And so, from sulk to funk in almost an instant:_ “You in the coolest place on the planet right now!”_ Prince is not lying. The typically purple – tonight he’s in white - virtuoso hides behind a speaker stack for much of the first 20 minutes of his own set, generously giving up the limelight while his former class and band mate Morris Day slides on stage to the tune of ‘Jungle Love’. There’s a sense that nobody can quite believe this is happening as Day brings fans up on stage to make their reverie quite public, meanwhile Prince plays peek-a-boo when his head pops out only to roll eyes at a fan’s bad dancing. Soon enough, former protégé Sheila E joins in for a number before the set explodes into a frenzy of badass ‘80s hits. ‘1999’, ‘I Feel For You’, ‘Controversy’ and ‘You Got the Look’ all make an appearance, but it’s only when Prince ‘does a Radiohead’ and unleashes an entirely palatable doo-wop rendition of ‘Creep’ that eyes glaze over and smiles are at their widest. “From now on, this is Prince’s house,” the wee man declares at the top of his 1am encore, ‘Purple Rain’ and ‘Let’s Go Crazy’ bringing the curtain down on one night in a million.
Fresh from winning the award that the_ NME bestows when they’ve apparently otherwise forgotten you exist, Perry Farrell readies a Google Earth backdrop, a relentless techno stomp and a brace of Janes Addiction hits to produce a medley that visits _‘Just Because’, ‘Been Caught Stealing’ and ‘Stop’ via a slew of sporadic guitar solos that just don’t fit. But hell, who can begrudge the godfather of alternative rock his fun?
Keeping the vibe lively, Torontonian electro rockers Holy Fuck today manifests itself as a quartet. Assuming a huddle formation which sees them morph into the silhouette of a four headed beast that moves its limbs with effortless synchronicity, there’s an untouchable unity to their stage presence that makes titles like ‘The Pulse’ seem wholly apt. ‘Lovely Allen’ is the centrepiece – the most melodic item on display, to be sure – but the rest of the set captivates to such an extent that hardly a pair of eyes in the Gobi tent can be peeled away from their magnetism. A sublime highlight.
Equally as magnetic, it’s thousand yard stares all ‘round as Adam Franklin returns with Oxford quartet Swervedriver after a near decade long hiatus. Armed to the teeth with enough ‘road’ songs to put Springsteen on the ropes, they show and prove their well-aged mettle with the likes of the majestic, slow-motion car crash that is ‘Rave Down’ and the country-tinged ‘Last Train to Satansville’ – all equating to a well executed comeback for the understated shoegazers.
Not long after their fellow countrymen have departed the stage, Spiritualized threaten to blow the speakers with their low key gospel ploughing. ‘Soul on Fire’ takes a pounding, but by ‘Lord, Let It Rain on Me’ the kinks have just about worked their way out in time for J. Spaceman to rasp: “Jesus Christ, When your back's against the wall, It's sure hard to be grateful.” But by then it’s too late: an appointment at the main stage awaits.
Still revelling in the glory of the night before, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James likens Portishead’s set to “being inside a horrifying funhouse where a demon is trying to chase me down and milk me”. Their own new song ‘Evil Urges’ is suggestive of something similar, though in reality it deviates from the standard they offered with CCR-styled Kentucky-fried anthems like ‘Gideon’ and ‘One Big Holiday’ to dabble in lukewarm funk. If this is indicative of some mainstream lunge that their next album by the same name is about to take, they’ll no doubt ride high with a CD bound to become a ubiquitous property on coffee tables throughout the land, sandwiched right in between Coldplay and Zero 7. But maybe that’s jumping the gun slightly, eh?
My Morning Jacket
What better way to send 60,000 punters home in a blessed-out state than to hire Roger Waters to play Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety and set loose an inflatable pig? Suddenly, even the fact that Corey Feldman just walked past - dressed as Elvis, with an entourage of 20 women behind him - is entirely eclipsed.
Before the main event, Waters and company dole out a few classics from the Pink Floyd canon that whet the appetite for the psychedelic odyssey to ensue; ‘Shine On You Crazy Diamond’, ‘Have A Cigar’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ all hit the spot, made yet more astounding in their surround-sound delivery.
While Waters takes an intermission, there’s time enough to make one last dash to the Mojave tent for a hit of homegrown hip-hop from sometime Slug and El-P co-conspirator MURS. A cover of ‘Boyz-n-the Hood’ pumps out over the PA as DiS steps inside in time to hear the MC spit Eazy-E’s rhymes with glee. “You can’t spell Coachella without LA,” he points out, and he smears this idea all over the set; right up until the finale when he invites his Living Legends crew on stage to try out material from their latest LP The Gathering. “You can’t spell Coachella without LL, either.” He knows his ABCs, does MURS.
Standing in the shadow of Roger Waters’ reconvened lunar activities, tonight Black Mountain have been given a bum deal. In a parallel universe the Vancouver quintet would be afforded the opportunity to enjoy some of the cross-pollination in fans. Instead, they groove like Sabbath slowed down to a trudging pace on ‘Stormy High’, caught up in a crossfire with Waters as he bellows out ‘Money’ across the way. Time and time again, Amber Weber’s falsetto calls Patti Smith’s goosebump-inducing shrill to mind, it’s just a pity there’s a distinct lack of people here to witness it.
Meanwhile there’s a Floyd-fest in full swing on the other side of the polo field and that flying pig is now long gone; with a lush performance of his 35-year-old masterpiece in the bag, Waters goes on to succeed in one of the few areas Prince failed the night before when he rouses Coachella in to a unanimous sing-along during ‘The Wall’ and the classic lighters (or should that be Nokias) aloft moment for ‘Vera – Bring The Boys Back Home’. Similarly, ‘Comfortably Numb’ is sweet, melodramatic perfection, reaffirming Waters’ timeless genius for about the zillionth time before he signs off with a pyrotechnics display typically reserved for Kiss gigs. “I found God tonight…” says a young girl in the crowd as she walks away, dazzled by the weekend’s events. She won’t be the only one.