Yesterday, Thom Yorke DJ’d a brief set at the Ace Hotel in Palm Springs before heading off to the festival grounds. The guys in the lobby were there, and are wondering why Radiohead is so important, saying that tonight’s show “will be good, if we have enough drinks in our system.” I bet Thom was spinning dubstep and weirding everybody out with his newfound samurai Willie Nelson look. I wish I had seen it. Sure, the band issued its first half-letdown in a long time with The King Of Limbs, but a Radiohead letdown is like Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut. Fucking amazing on its own even if only average when compared to its own lofty catalogue.
En route to Coachella, we stop at a large estate where Crystal Antlers and a bunch of free stuff await. The temperature is 105 degrees and the small backyard pool is swollen with sunburned people. Even the people from Palm Springs are complaining about the heat. The party is sponsored by Jansport and part of a new outdoor music series called, quite predictably, the Bonfire Sessions. Crystal Antlers didn’t make the Coachella lineup, but the LBC experimental rock group did play before a tiny crowd of brave individuals willing to risk their health in the unshaded areas of the pool party. They played from Two Way Mirror, the band’s bruising and noteworthy sophomore effort. Heavy feedback functioned like an additional band member, turning their brazen rock into something volatile and pressing. Crystal Antlers seemed to voice the collective anger people had toward the merciless sun.
Back at Coachella, the talk is centered around the big female-fronted acts performing later that night. Food vendors are twiddling their thumbs because everyone is too hot to eat and the beer gardens are empty because Heineken is terrible. In terms of flavor and ethics. Here are some highlights of what unfolded past the entry gates.
St. Vincent, 7:45 pm
Annie Clark, the big brains and gorgeous face behind St. Vincent, keeps saying that “this is a fucking live show” between songs. It’s true, but more of a charming excuse for her occasional lapses and missed chords. Her set is choppy, but she more than compensates with wide-eyed banter and reckless galavanting. At one point she robs the stagehand of his spray gun and starts dousing the crowd herself. She has her electric guitar in one hand and the water weapon in the other and looks like a femme fatale from a Tarantino movie.
Clark plays “Marrow” as hard as possible, demanding max volume from the sound crew before firing into the electro-charged chorus. Her speedy rendition of “Year Of The Tiger” is spot-on, invigorating the crowd with a melody that sounds a lot like the Tomahawk Chop before being overtaken by Clark’s aggressive guitar. With “Chloe In The Afternoon,” Clark shows off her angelic vocals, a tender counterpoint to her ferocious guitar riffing.
By the end of St. Vincent’s set, Clark is crowd surfing and summersaulting around onstage. The band is still noticeably fired up from covering the Pop Group’s “She Is Beyond Good And Evil.” St. Vincent’s heartfelt and heavily distorted version did the late '70s English post-punk group proud, hit with a touch of reggae much like the original.
Feist, 8:40 pm
The last time I saw Feist, she was playing mostly solo at the Doug Fir, stacking vocal loops to the ceiling and strumming her acoustic guitar over it all. Newest record Metals showcases a different Leslie Feist, part songwriter, part arranger and composer. She was one of 11 people on stage Saturday night, including a horn section and a trio of harmony vocalists. But it wasn’t an entirely new experience for the Canadian, having played big parts in sprawling bands like Broken Social Scene.
Somehow, Feist’s bird-like, always undulating singing voice broke through her band’s bigger, bolstered sound. And it had to for several stretches as tech troubles silenced her guitar. At a loss during these awkward moments, Feist put her arms in the air and danced, attracting smiles and applause from her band mates. Festival management probably made Feist swear to play “Mushaboom,” and she did, but redid the track entirely. She deflated it, replacing its carefree pep with a brokenhearted, languid structure. Her background vocalists added rhythmic, breathy notes that gave the hit single a brand new heartbeat.
Other standouts included the vintage-natured “How Come You Never Go There” and the swelling “Graveyard.” Throughout, Feist sang from every part of her mouth, twisting and tying her lyrics as though they were the flowers of a bouquet. Big rim shots paved the way for the bluesy guitar riff of “The Bad In Each Other.” Here, the entire band really clicked, matching Feist’s warbling vocals with powerful surges and dramatic pauses and explosive restarts.
Radiohead, 11 pm
A somewhat contentious rule had been put in place by festival organizers called the “radius clause.” It demanded that bands on the Coachella bill refrain from performing at any other venue within a rather large territory (including Los Angeles and San Diego, well over 100 miles away). The idea, of course, was to create exclusivity. Bands could be granted permission to play within the radius in between Coachella weekends and during the lead up to the festival, but this caveat was murky at best. And how could it possibly apply to a band as big and influential as Radiohead, whose home away from home is undoubtedly Los Angeles?
Perhaps Radiohead spent the week in-between weekends patching up their alleged differences. The band showed zero signs of infighting on stage, turning out a spirited set spanning OK Computer to The King Of Limbs. Thom Yorke was visibly giddy, wearing a broad smile and waving to many of the photogaphers in the pit. The band could have just as easily treated their set as old hat and put on a streamlined show that would appease the masses. Radiohead, however, was in the mood to captivate. Yorke and copilot Johnny Greenwood played musical chairs, swapping places and instruments until there was nothing left to play.
1. Bloom - Greenwood is pounding the shit out of a snare drum, trading notes with full-time percussionist Phil Selway. The many giant flat screens above the stage are streaming live close-up footage of the entire Radiohead cast as they play. It’s the coolest sports bar ever.
2. 15 Step - Yorke is flaying around to this, the danciest number on In Rainbows. The crowd seems shocked, as if Radiohead doesn’t have the capacity for bounce. They’re wrong.
3. Morning Mr. Magpie - This song always reminds me of a dire hospital situation. The repetitive guitar pacing feels like a heart monitor and the hasty drumming says things are urgent. Greenwood is tweaking the song’s template ever so slightly, adding more reverb than usual.
4. Staircase - A song that always felt like Thom Yorke with a laptop took on a whole new meaning live. Everyone is participating, especially Greenwood, with his dreamy guitar work and perfect timing.
5. The Gloaming - A beautiful mess of effects and pitch distortion, a welcome respite from a fairly poppy opening.
6. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi - Straightforward and a little boring, but more the song’s fault than the band’s. As pretty as this track is, it doesn’t play well in a live setting.
7. Pyramid Song - Perhaps the best of the set, a seamless, stretched-out version that ebbed and flowed like a mighty ocean.
8. You And Whose Army - The group next to me jumped out of sheer terror when the drums finally kicked. But just as the song eases in, it fades out, allowing the crowd to recover.
9. Nude - A classic example of Radiohead’s powerful narrative technique. Timeless thanks to a true intro, middle, and end, with character development in the form of shifty percussion, a flowering chorus, and ever-growing string samples.
10. Kid A - Unclean, in a good way. The majority of the set has been strong but very polished thus far. The glitchy nature of the track inspires a bit of improv from the band.
11. Lotus Flower - Though he didn’t quite do this, Yorke danced hard.
12. There There - Incredible, with just about every band member finding something to drum on. For whatever reason, the lyrics seem extra extraordinary, like I’m hearing them for the first time.
13. Karma Police - A crowd favorite, but Radiohead seems to power through it, as if to say, “Yes, great song, but that was 1997.”
14. Feral - A harrowing song made more so by guitarist Ed O’ Brien’s hat (which appears to have been taken straight form the set of A Clockwork Orange) and Yorke’s ghostly vocalizations.
15. Ideoteque - Ending with a bang and having scared some of the crowd off with “Feral,” Radiohead dial in on a song that has huge appeal because a little bit of everything.
First Encores: House Of Cards, Reckoner, Bodysnatchers Second Encores: Give Up The Ghost, Exit Music (For A Film), Paranoid Android
After Radiohead wraps up, a drunk girl is whining about the set. “Fuck you, Radiohead,” she says, “You didn’t even play ‘Creep.’”
“Fuck you,” I mutter. “They know better.”
Stay tuned for Day Three (Wild Flag, Snoop Dogg, etc.).