As you read this, the number of YouTube hits for Tupac’s “hologram” Coachella performance will likely crest 2.5 million. And while the digital ghost of the late gangster rapper set a new precedent for urging the dead back on stage, 139 other acts performed too. In the flesh, no less.
For the first time in its 13-year existence, the Coachella Music Festival experimented with two consecutive weekends. Dubbed “Twinchella” this year, the festival featured an identical bill for both the April 13-15 leg and April 20-22 leg. The opening weekend featured live streaming from most of the five stages, something I avoided like the plague so as not to murder any element of surprise and anticipation.
Certain things about Coachella are predictable: The sweltering heat, the pricey drinks, the 75,000 fans, the celebrity fanfare, the Sahara Tent dance parties. Other things less so, such as the wonderfully awful Tim Lincecum shirt that Girls’ frontman Christopher Owens sported. I had no idea, for example, that feather dresses are still just barely more popular than they are offensive. Or, that Wild Flag would jam the hardest and St. Vincent would cover the Pop Group. Radiohead stole the weekend, but much more happened than I can possibly blog about. Here are the highlights from Day One. Stay tuned for days two and three later this week.
Girls, 5:40 pm
When San Francisco act Girls take the stage, it’s more seance than show. Mic stands are adorned with fresh flowers and the band’s meticulously restrained, lo-fi sound communicates directly with rock pioneers like Lou Reed and Buddy Holly. The result is somewhat spiritual, more so than usual on Friday thanks to a cerebral haze cast by temperatures well into the 100s.
Girls’ latest record, Father, Son, Holy Ghost, is the band's best work to date. How it was not written 50 years ago is beyond me. “Love Like A River,” a song the band had just performed on Conan, defied Instagram-fixated fans and Coachella banners with embedded QR codes. The bygone track sounds like something that might have blared through the speakers of a drive-in hamburger joint in 1962. A trio of background vocalists “oooohed” it even further into the past, giving it an early R&B quality.
In “Vomit,” the band cast a chilling wind on the smoldering crowd. The song feels like diary entry revealed, quiet and secretive at first but confident and relieved by its powerful crescendo. Background vocalists—including the soulful Tisha Fredrick—emptied their pipes to this one, sending neck hairs upright. The trio gave richness to every number, an especially welcomed feature given the record’s mostly minor-key setting.
Heat-exhausted fans shouted “Cat Power” when Girls started in on “My Ma.” While the chord progression replicates “The Greatest,” this song morphs into something else entirely. It grabs at big feelings—“Oh God, I’m so lost / And I’m here in the darkness / And I want to see the light of love”—without fully capturing them, carving into the listener and nearly carving him out. We felt as weightless as the scattered dust that rose like spirits from sauntering feet of tired, tired fans.
M. Ward, 7:35 pm
Coachella managed to feature one Portland act per day in 2012. Not bad, considering the company, colossal names like Snoop Dogg, David Guetta and Florence + the Machine. It’s hopeful that a guy like M. Ward gets the respect he deserves in an industry with the attention span of a five-year-old. The evening slot M. Ward received was not so much an award as a just reaction to his rich career (accented by his triumphant return to himself, musically, with newest release A Wasteland Companion).
Aside from his simple coolness, M. Ward is a genuine stagehound. His 50-minute set was infinitely looser than the strictly mandated timeframe it inhabited. Instead, it bursted with the ebb and flow you’d expect from a late night club show. He played newest hit “Primitive Girl,” much to the crowd’s pleasure, but the track’s piano-dominated melody turned on a cold shoulder on Ward’s gift.
Songs like “Pure Joy” and “The First Time I Ran Away” spoke to Ward’s breathtaking ability as a solo performer. He brought the crowd as close as it would be all weekend, united in an effort to listen so hard that it hurt. To uncover some hidden meaning even when the point he’s making is straightforward and lasting. “This is another one about the joys of watching TV,” Ward said before striding into rolling rock-a-billy number “Watch The Show.”
Los Angeles folk-pop group Dawes joined M. Ward for Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” They looked lost, pretending to strum and drum on anything they could find but really just marveling at Ward’s artistry. Tough to blame them, really.
M83, 10:15 pm
Quite expectedly, “Midnight City” drew the loudest applause, but M83 was just about flawless for 50 minutes at Coachella. Anthony Gonzalez and company paraded around like cartoon characters, moved by their spaced-out pop sketches. He strolled on stage in costume, wearing the terrifying ewok-meets-anteater mask featured on the "Midnight City" single.
M83’s heaving, blinking, flickering sound is the stuff you imagine while driving through a large city in the middle of the night. Which made it all the more interesting and standout-ish plopped down in the middle of the desert, a complex knot of wires and dials before a basic backdrop of dirt and palm trees. I’d always pictured M83 as a robotic band that would remain fairly stationary live. I was wrong.
“Steve McQueen” and “Wait” showed the band’s human side, songs packed with intoxicating chants and endless build, like an escalator to the moon. Keyboardist Morgan Kibby was quick to grab a drumstick and start banging on whatever was nearby. To their credit, M83 played a significantly different set from the weekend prior. The focus shifted to older material and despite my love for Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, the altered set list made them even less robotic.
The percussion was outstanding, especially in the party-starter “Reunion.” Again expecting samples and getting realtime drumming, I was impressed. M83’s high-octane set would be hard to beat.
Amon Tobin, Midnight
I have never seen so many youngsters walk out on a show. Granted, Amon Tobin’s music is stubborn. The Brazilian avant-garde electronica composer has historically teased listeners with intricate sound structures that often fall apart just before you’re able to process them. His work is very much in the jazz mode, shifting in and out of strange time signatures and off keys. Just when you expect a big beat to bring the whole thing back to earth, he pulls it out from under you.
So I chased the dangling carrot for a while, enjoying the 3D screen he was playing in and projecting on. It looked like something from Tetris just before you lose, a high, randomized stack of blocks of various shapes and sizes. The video matched Amon Tobin’s every shifty move, a mix of rising gas and flickering grid work. It put those who stayed in a stupor. The maestro appeared from within a block a time or two, but mostly stayed hidden. As jaw-dropping as the presentation was, it lacked a liveness. It was something that could have been just as easily enjoyed on the internet.
And then there was more. Stay tuned for Day Two (St. Vincent, Feist, Radiohead and more).