April 21st, 2009 | by MARK STOCK Music | Posted In: Columns, Live Cuts

Mark Stock's Coachella, Part One: Sub, Swelter, Savagery

     
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handofman2We sent WW's Mark Stock to the desert. What follows is part one of his three-part series on this year's Coachella festival.

Three days in Indio, California become one long day in the desert when it's 100 degrees. You begin to imagine your limbs are long enough to reach Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and rip the just-opened water bottle from her gloved hand.

Coachella, now in its tenth year, is built on flashes. Like a reel of film, the three days are devoted to many, many, many single frames that, when played back in memory, create a single moving organism of speckled American audio. 129 stage performances over three days. Sets are brief, banter is briefer, but the pull of the festival remains. And this year, despite a melting economy and unseasonable warmth, Coachella was chalk full of the faithful. Three days cost the average man $285—sacrifices had clearly been made elsewhere. In times of crises, it's best to just dance.

Band of Horses:
band of horses

Fifty minute sets can be tough to swallow, especially from an act that's been relatively quiet lately like, say, Band of Horses. Stuck between the hits and the new stuff, there's little room to please all. And while I was being updated on the Blazers' crushing blow Saturday evening—they'll bounce back—Ben Bridwell sleepwalked through “Funeral” to the glee of adoring teens. At song's end, the kids filed out, lusting for the 1992 neon vibe MIA was painting one stage over. Bridwell laughed at the sound of distant bass before saying “Alright then, on to some new stuff.”

Hand of Man:
handofman2

Though the trek from stage to stage is a long one, gigantic art installations line the path. Steroids seemed to be the theme this year, as everything was blown delightfully out of proportion. A giant hydraulic hand named Hand of Man occupied one spot, operated by a hand-shaped controller akin to the Nintendo Powerglove. People could crush an old car with—essentially—their very own hand. Fire breathing dragons, bamboo water bazookas, dinosaurs, robots, villages made of palates—they were all in attendance.

Oh, but the music. Headliners this year included Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, TV On The Radio and The Cure. Pleasant surprises included Portland's Glass Candy, NYC's obscurely catchy Gang Gang Dance Dance, and the Swedish smorgasbord of Peter Bjorn and John and Lykke Li. The bluesy vocalist, a distraught Nelly Furtado with a love for percussion, stunned the crowd with a cover of Kings of Leon's “Knocked Up” and Lil' Wayne's “Cash Money Millionaires.” Her Scandinavian humor and meowing voice proved among the weekend's best.

Rumors of acts missed Friday were a little deflating. Faith No More's Mike Patton apparently shared a stage with beatbox machine Rahzel. Leonard Cohen had played an extended version of “Hallelujah,” the Tings Tings belted sing-a-longs and the Black Keys were extra loud.

Blitzen Trapper and M. Ward manned the lineup too, injecting some Stumptown into the worldly 2009 bill. Ward wowed many with a pair of covers, first of Scott Joplin's “The Entertainer” and closing with Chuck Berry's electric classic, “Roll Over Beethoven.” Y La Bamba and Justin Power of PDX played poolside at the Ace Hotel, Palm Springs' retro retreat of modern architecture and classic Hollywood personality (and sister hotel to Portland's trendy Ace). Here, golden-skinned somebodies shared hammocks, chlorinated water and mojitos with pale, mustached artists. Portland and southern California were getting along just fine.

The greatest chasm at Coachella is that that lies between bands who've grown familiar with multi-stage scenarios and those who still marvel at it. Whereas Okkervil River played an uninspired and safe—albeit sturdy—set of recent singles, Peter Bjorn and John tried out yet-to-be-released numbers and new takes on old favorites. The Scandinavian trio played rambunctious renditions of “Just the Past” and “It Don't Move Me” from their latest record, Living Thing. Friend and fellow Swede Lykke Li hopped on stage for a lengthy take on “Young Folks.”

Lykke Li:

lykke li


While Thievery Corporation stuck to standbys like “Lebanese Blonde” with their signature farrago of countless performers and cross-cultural fusion, Gang Gang Dance Dance tried their hand at a completely new genre. The group, endorsed earlier by TVOTR's Kyp Malone, welded psych-rock and dance with wordless, mid-east inspired vocals and Battles-like digital tinkering.

Little was in the way of cancellations or technical foul ups. Glasvegas bugged out last minute, citing illness. The crowd booed, but a veteran roadie new exactly what to do: “Yes, it's my fault people, I made them sick. I had TB and made out with them all.” MIA had swapped with Amy Winehouse (for better or worse I'm not sure). It was the throwback diva's first show since the birth of her child.

And between celebrity and spendy undersized drinks, Coachella offered what it needed to. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs provided the knock out punch. Karen O's infectious energy won the crowd over immediately. She announced her band's presence like a Monster Truck Rally commentator, shouting “Sunday, Sunday, Sunday, one day only,” as they filed out fifteen minutes late. She couldn't keep from laughing during many of her songs, giddy at the sight of thousands swatting beach balls that looked like eye balls. It was evident that the band didn't want to leave—after admitting that “Maps” would be their last song, they went on to play two additional tracks from It's Blitz!

nighttime

Hours spent in the desert had blurred any sense of reality. Limbs said stop but the bands—from shaded stages—kept feeding the masses. So we stayed.

Still to come: Glass Candy sweeten the Gobi stage and A Coachella Education, of sorts.
 
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