Coachella is an ancient Native American word that loosely translates to “obsessed with the past.” That not actually true, of course, but so it feels when one of the country’s largest, most shapeshifting festivals offers acts like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blur, the Stone Roses, Moby, Wu-Tang Clan and Violent Femmes as top-tier headliners. They’ve done this before, and they did it again. In 2013.
My relationship with Coachella is not unlike that of most attendees. The massive bill is intimidating. The crowds—which are estimated to have reached close to 200,000 people over its two weekends—are daunting. The venue, an endless polo field covered by six stages and a slough of towering art installations, is downright belittling. But somewhere in the choking dust kicked up by all the people, there are still treasures to be found.
It takes some panning, some sifting, even time out of context to settle in. Coachella offers music on such a grandiose scale that you’d have to be completely blitzed on MDMA to miss it. From an American music culture standpoint, there’s a learning opportunity around every bend. Bands act differently here—from the brilliant finger-pointing mockery of Father John Misty to Purity Ring’s giddiness, the byproduct of playing to its biggest crowd to date.
And how couldn’t they when it’s 100 degrees in a Heineken-sponsored martian landscape, where rich Malibu kids coexist alongside with ravers and gypsies? The biodiversity of Coachella is flooring. I missed a lot, but took in much. Here are my five favorite acts of Weekend Two in the smoldering desert, with illustrations:
The Postal Service
The Postal Service's Give Up is Sub Pop’s second-best selling record of all time, and there’s a reason for that. It’s pretty damn good. And while the Postal Service’s only record still rings contemporary today, I feared a hollow performance from a group that seemed reconstructed for the sole purpose of reminding us they were big 10 years ago. Not so. Ben Gibbard played with purpose, shifting from guitar to drums and back again. Jenny Lewis added her customary tender vocals, and Jimmy Tamborello’s beats came through clean and neatly personalized.
Australian stoner-rockers Tame Impala proved itself a hallucinatory experience. The band’s late-Beatles classic-rock experimentation had a delightfully warping effect, bending the straightness of nearby palm trees and a tired midday crowd into a fluid mass of colors. Witnessing near-perfect executions of “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” and “Mind Mischief” brought new meaning to the term "kaleidoscope rock." And I wasn’t even on banned substances.
Sigur Ros’ new sound seems to be an “enough is enough” sonic statement. Tired of being labeled “that atmospheric band from Scandinavia,” Jónsi and his bandmates—along with a string section—are debuting material that is manic, potent and on the verge of recklessness. This isn’t the first time the Icelandic band has produced a lashing sound (as evidenced by big portions of Ágaetis Byrjun), but the latest bout of stormy, bow-on-electric-guitar black magic is refreshing in light of most of its recent work. They played a punishing version of new track “Brennisteinn” that dropped just about every jaw at the Outdoor Theatre.
Top 5 Coachella Performances
5. Beach House
With Beach House, even a lackluster performance by the preeminent dream-pop outfit is, well, dreamy and transcendent. When conditions are right—in this case, with a lingering sunset and an entire microclimate of artificial fog—a Beach House set is something special.
Vocalist Victoria Legrand is a sound crew’s fantasy, her rich and resounding calls barely contained by the cords and wires that separate mic and speaker. She stood commandingly over her synthesizer, keenly aware that every note played and sung was a one-two punch that sent the crowd flying. The band drifted through most of latest album Bloom in what felt like one big meandering track. Alex Scally’s rippling guitar play seems to get better with every show. Beach House has been great for several years, but it’s beginning to feel like the band is at its best right now.
4. Portugal. The Man
In a Coachella year that offered few Portland acts (Modest Mouse, Portugal. The Man and, to a lesser extent, Johnny Marr), it was the psych-rockers of the bunch that stole the show. Plenty used to the festival circuit by now, Portugal. The Man relishes the big stage. In fact, the forthcoming Evil Friends record is full of stadium clappers befitting of colossal arenas or amphitheaters.
Opening with the title track, Portugal. The Man made it clear it wasn’t just going to play radio hits. And anyway, the band is much more at home live, the highly controlled airwaves robbing the quintet of its natural inclination to jam, solo and stretch out. Frontman John Gourley could hardly resist a riff or outright solo whenever there was ample space to do so. As far as rock ‘n’ roll goes, these guys were the top performers of the weekend.
The anthemic “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” bled wonderfully into the soulful, Mars Volta-ish “All Your Light." Instead of bullying the crowd with too many fist-pumpers, Portugal offered respite when we needed it most, namely towards the end of the set with “Sea of Air.” The lean new track could double as an early Jack White B-side, a real trophy in Gourley’s songwriting display case.
3. Purity Ring
Of a notable Montreal scene, Purity Ring stand out as glitch-gaze and big-beat forerunners. Last year, the duo turned out a record of the year candidate in Shrines, but its meticulous production and heavy electronic influence made me wonder if Purity Ring's live show would offer little more than a gifted vocalist singing over a boom box of pre-taped material.
Megan James and Corin Roddick did much more. The former sang her heart out while the latter manned a custom-built tree-shaped beat station that lit up every time a note or sample was struck. The oft-used digital bell effects give Purity Ring an almost Far East persona, and are doubly enthralling when constructed live (especially on “Grandloves”). The duo could have easily taken the autopilot route but seemed determined to build every track from the ground up.
Fans gawked over known singles like “Fineshrine” and “Belispeak,” but the entire 50-minute set was dark, pulsating and creative, like a neo-Portishead. For a lyricist who sings so much about anatomy, it’s surprisingly affecting to see the person responsible in the flesh. James’ rather normal look belied her enigmatic sound, adding even more mystique to a group that thrives in the darker climes of electronica. Aware of their youthful surroundings, the duo offered an obscenely catchy cover of Soulja Boy’s “Grammy.”
Being crowned the next Radiohead is probably terrifying. Alt-J is weathering the pressure, though, turning out tracks that, quite honestly, wouldn’t be out of place within the hallowed print of In Rainbows’ tracklist. “Tessellate” has well over three million YouTube views, so if there ever was a secret surrounding this inventive British group, it’s long dead.
The group met at Leeds University six years ago but the tightness of their set suggests they’ve been playing together for decades. Last year’s An Awesome Wave is Alt-J’s greatest accomplishment yet, but the Mercury Prize-winning group’s youth and onstage effortlessness suggest the best is yet to come. Frontman Joe Newman sang in his uniquely personal "ghost with heavy congestion" style, an instrument in and of itself.
Heavy syncopation, hip-hop percussion and speedy guitar-picking make for complex song structures. In other words, there’s plenty of room for error, but live, Alt-J was as seamless as it was nonchalant. Favorites “Something Good” and “Breezeblocks” shook the house, but unlike other breakout bands playing at Coachella this year, Alt-J retained its large crowd at the Mojave Tent from the moment instruments were tuned to the moment they were unplugged.
1. Father John Misty
At first, watching Joshua Tillman swing his hips to countrified hymnals about Southern California absurdity felt like a joke. His tireless and hilarious banter, his cross-dressing bandmate, his eagerness to smoke a cigarette while in the middle of a song about bettering ones self—it was a cocktail of mockery and egoism concocted by a guy best known for playing drums in Fleet Foxes.
Yet, it was brilliant. As Tillman has explained in numerous interviews, Father John Misty is an alter-ego of sorts, a being built out of severe depression and an exacting cultural eye. Musically, his album, Fear Fun, is outstanding. It is mischievous, too, quarreling with religion, celebrity, vanity, and the record industry itself.
“Vampire Weekend and I have lined up our chords and tempos so that we’re indistinguishable from one another,” Tillman joked. He filled the gaps in between songs with dry remarks about hypocritical flower children and threats to bubble-blowing fans in the front row. “This is my stage,” he shouted. “Mine!”
And for all 45 minutes, it truly was his stage. Sporting a Jesus beard and locks to match, Tillman played tour guide through a strange, half-spiritual, half-musical journey that more than matched the banner he played in front of, depicting Tillman as a shaman watching over his commune of women and bizarre creatures. He made it hard on himself from the get-go by mainly singing acapella—a difficult and sometimes awkward task for many musicians—but Tillman put everything into his vocals, which morphed the Gobi Tent into a cathedral.
Father John Misty managed something none of the artists could. Through a spellbinding run through “Fun Times In Babylon” and a galloping rendition of the Willy Nelson-esque “I’m Writing A Novel," Tillman and band married folk to fiction while tapping into a pure, almost comic honesty that one might associate with a cult. Again, no drugs involved. Just a witness to a musician who could easily be mis-categorized as satirical and insular but is, in fact, stealing festivals with showmanship and conviction.
Photos (All by Mark Stock):
Father John Misty plays the Wonder Ballroom on May 25.
Tame Impala plays the Crystal Ballroom on May 26.
The Postal Service plays the Rose Garden on July 17.
Alt-J plays the Crystal Ballroom on Sept 3.