It is no coincidence that Coachella's finest lineup to date included five notable bands with strong Pacific Northwest ties. Simply put, these bands made the three-day festival set in California's scalding Mojave Desert quite a bit cooler.
One of the nation's grandest music gatherings touted 128 acts this year, spread evenly over five stages in Indio's 90-acre, oasis-like Empire Polo Grounds. An estimated 80,000 showed up, and because of the new all-or-nothing approach (a three-day pass being the only option) traffic exiting Los Angeles moved about as quickly as a dead person waiting for a bus.
And, as the merciless deities of music would have it, Portland's Hockey and M. Ward (playing in the adorable form of She & Him) played Friday afternoon. By all accounts overheard, the two groups performed strongly. Hockey delighted a crowd eager to trade-in travel woes for dancing shoes while She & Him provided the perfect medicine for a celebrity lovin', bubble gum hungry southern California fan base. I spent the sets moving three miles per hour over the dusty warehouse maze that is the Inland Empire. I'm not sure the Coachella organizing team thought about the bottle-necking affects three-day only passes might have on the Friday afternoon commute in a city of eight million. But the festival is on lockdown for another ten years thanks to a new lease with the Polo grounds so there's time to work that out.
Weird shit just happened to be the theme of the weekend. Volcanic ash spilling from a volcano in Iceland froze transatlantic travel for several days, sidelining some international bands. Fortunately, most of the European acts on the Coachella bill - and there were many - were already touring in North America. Rumors of Muse being stranded in the UK spread like the plague but proved wrong when they took the stage right on time a few hours later. Perry Farrell was scheduled to perform with his wife in his new side project on the smallish Sahara Stage, Thom Yorke's Sunday timeslot was still being advertised as “Thom Yorke????” and N' Sync's JC Chasez was rubbing elbows with nobodies like me in the VIP section, pretending to have a taste for music. Again, weird shit.
But the Northwest bands I caught all performed well under the desert sun. There were long-awaited reunions, gutsy covers and rusty attempts at stage banter.
Portugal. The Man
Launching from Sara Palin's hometown but set in Portland, Protugal. The Man played during the heat of the day Saturday in the shade of the Mojave Tent. The quartet surged into a 45-minute set that seemed to end abruptly only because nobody wanted it to stop. Coachella is notorious for strict set times and punctuality is key. Many bands in the past have fallen victim to its clockwork. This does allow for quick, clean, often pre-meditated sets and P.TM's was all of the above, while still taking the time to wander into bluesy solos, peaceful breakdowns and tremendous cover snipitts.
With the addition of a female backup vocalist since I last caught them, P.TM sounded comfortably plump. Their performance reflected the energy and hard rock ways of Wolfmother, a band that blew the tent to smithereens during a similar afternoon at Coachella 2006. Standout renditions of “Do What We Do” and “The Sun” had passersby stop in their tracks and hear out their whole set. Frontman John Gourey's frequent guitar interludes showed an urge to impress and the band followed his confidence measure for measure.
After playing a quick Bowie riff, they jumped into MGMT's classic rock inspired “Weekend Wars.” It was a hats-off to a band they publicly respect—one that took the Outdoor Theater that night. At the same time, it was a new take on an established song, all wound-down and tranquil. It was about the only rest period the band had during its potent, unified set. In this, the era of superbands—many, like The Dead Weather and Them Crooked Vultures playing Coachella—I could not help but imagine the splendor of Portugal. The Man matching up with San Francisco's Sleepy Sun on tour. Heads would explode.
Sunny Day Real Estate
People complained about the iconic Seattle band's hits-first set, but why? The younger festival goers turned away after a few songs, unaware that so many of what so many bands due today is because of Jeremy Enigk and company. Sure, they weren't crashing about on stage in torn jeans like they did in the '90s, but they were crisp and collected. And sure, band mate Dan Horner played with Dashboard Confessional during their lengthy intermission, but we all make mistakes. The kids of today think all is well with Mr. Obama in office, to the point where they fail to see a need for the angst-powered, head-in-hands flannel rock of Sunny Day.
Props to Enigk, whose voice hasn't changed in two decades. Their grungy, strung-out anthems sounded well rehearsed and embraced. The band was glowing, noticeably happy to be playing shows again. Much like last year's fine Crystal Ballroom set, their Coachella set offered a stretched sampling of their record collection. They belted “Song About An Angel” much to the joy of hundreds of balding, Sub Pop t-shirt clad fans. How wonderful it is for a prominent band with so much influence to not only sound just like they did on the uprise, but express the same excitement in doing so.
The empire of Slanted & Enchanted had already been built before I started listening to music with any seriousness. And because Pavement broke up in 1999, I figured I'd never see the likes of “Summer Babe” and “Loretta's Scars” performed live. Coachella changed that.
Musically, Pavement is still being led by one of the best in the business. Stephen Malkmus, busy in PDX over the last few years with the Jicks, looks as good as he sounds. His choppy vocal ways and free verse guitar—the same ones that taught the American indie music scene how to be creative and lyrically challenging—remain intact. The band made some terrible jokes about California (and far more wives than groupies greeted their set), but it was reassuring to see them together again on stage. Seeing them written on paper as co-headlining with Faith No More was almost too much to handle.
“Thanks for knowing who we are,” Malkmus said to the fans. The sound shorted out a few minutes later, not so much a result of their incessant rocking as a few gusts of heavy wind, but I like to imagine it was the former.
Stay tuned for part two, Mark Stock's Top Five Shows.