My First World Problems: Coachella is only three days long!

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Harry Menear | Entertainment Editor | April 24, 2012 

Coachella is a three day, all-out assault on the senses.

From the second you step off the shuttle, the baking desert heat surrounds you, envelopes you, permeates every damn fiber of your being. By the time you reach the line for the security groping session your body is already sweating out fluid faster than you can gulp it down. On day two I came up with an ingenious plan that involved filling my hat with ice cubes, which had the unfortunate side effect of making me look as though I had a glandular problem. I can happily say though, that of the ninety thousand bros, babes, band members, and other assorted elements of the drug and alcohol-addled public present this weekend, I was the only one with brainfreeze.

Me and my concerting bear Connery ready to go on day 1

To best explain Coachella, it’s necessary to fast forward to the third and final day. Horn-heavy indie band Beirut had just delivered a mind-blowing show that drew a huge crowd to the small “Mojave” side-stage. I didn’t have a huge inclination to catch Florence and the Machine, so I ambled over to the food court (more shall be spoken of this wondrous place later) and bought a date shake. Since it was a festival, and I was past caring, I followed the example of so many others and flopped down on the grimy, strangely greasy, grass beneath the stars.

As I sat there in the detritus, watching the great formless creature that is Coachella’s audience flow around me like an ocean, and wishing that the damn date shake stand did chocolate as well, I realized something about the nature of this three-day pageant of sound and lunacy: for the majority of the people there, it’s not actually about the music. I know that sounds like the opinion of a venomous, humanity-despising hipster but bear with me a moment here.

People go to Coachella for the experience of going to Coachella. They go to share in the collective discomfiture of living in a field for three days. They go to be on drugs, surrounded by numerous representatives of California’s law-enforcement agencies, with impunity. They mostly go for the spectacle though; the vast converted polo field stretching on and on into the distance, giant sculptures rising up here and there to serve as land marks for the lost; and people flowing like liquid across this sonic wasteland in their thousands. They’re not there for the music; they are So-Cal bros there to bare their nipples to the world for a weekend with their buddies and/or girlfriends. Coachella is as much about the people who you go with as the bands you see.

But I was at Coachella expressly as a music nerd. The festival attracts top acts from every corner of the world – many of the bands were British – and boasted a lineup containing a fair few of my very favourite groups. I shall now provide an overview of who I saw in chronological order.

Friday:

The worst thing that happened to this man's career was outliving Bob Marley

I wandered in to Coachella and was immediately drawn to the main stage where seasoned reggae singer Jimmy Cliff was performing with his group and bass-playing producer. His songs were the perfect soundtrack to the late desert afternoon as a sea of sunburnt spectators leapt about and sweated on each other.

The second act I saw was my reason for going to Coachella. The Arctic Monkeysare quite possibly my favourite band. Their songwriting and musicianship are better than just about any band of the last ten years. Frontman Alex Turner’s lyrics in particular set the band apart as more than just your average blunt instrument rock band, without becoming “whiny intellectual” singer-songwriter crap.

After Alex Turner, the band's de facto frontman is definitely powerhouse drummer/singer Mathew Helders

 

Their sound has evolved and changed a lot since their beginnings in 2004. Post-punk alternative became dark indie rock became psychedelic rock became a blend of polished retro indie-pop and bangin’ club tunes. While I’m not so fond of some of their newer stuff (Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair) in comparison to past hits (Fluorescent Adolescent) I must admit that they carry their new, harder-edged sound very well when performing live, evoking elements of their earlier, spikier, post-punk sound (Still Take You Home) but with a more commercial rock twist. I hated their newest single “R U Mine?” when I first heard it, but their live rendition was so good I’m contemplating changing my mind.

After the Arctic Monkeys finished and I’d fought my way out of the crowd, 80’s Brit ska band Madness was next on the agenda. I’ve liked their energetic, clever, and above all, fun songwriting style since I was ten, belting out the lyrics to “Baggy Trousers” at full volume on the way home from school. I grew to respect the band’s pioneering role in the popularization of music videos – despite how ridiculously kitsch they are – and how good they were reputed to be live. I’m glad to say, that after more than thirty years, this bunch of granddads did not disappoint.

I didn’t know anything about Pulp except that Jarvis Cocker was in the band and they were playing before the Black Keys, so they can’t be total dross I reasoned. To say that I reasoned completely incorrectly would be a mild overstatement. When Jarvis Cocker was visible from behind the storm of lasers, the noise the band produced could best be described as self-indulgent. Needless to say, I took the opportunity to go and get some food.

Before I talk about the headlining act, I shall say a quick word about festival food. Firstly, the myth that it’s a disgusting, greasy affair is untrue. The Coachella food court offered everything from Pizza to Mongolian Barbeque, with a little Greek, Mexican, and seafood thrown in. One would expect the quality to be high though, considering that the average price of a meal was somewhere in the neighbourhood of ten dollars. In between the ten minutes of Pulp I could tolerate, and the Black Keys, I indulged in a pile of delicious garlic fries, piled high with pulled pork and smothered in coleslaw. I do declare that it was delicious.

Like the Arctic Monkeys, I do prefer the Black Keys’ earlier work (Rubber Factory, Attack and Release). But I do certainly admit that they pulled off their newer songs from El Camino (Gold On the Ceiling, Lonely Boy) very well. One of the Black Keys’ greatest charms is just how un-rock and roll they look. Guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach and Drummer Patrick Carney both look as though they could be schoolteachers, but here they are, rocking out to a twenty-thousand strong crowd. Now that’s real rock ‘n roll.

photo by Noah Abrams - http://www.noahabrams.com

An unexpected bonus that came with the Black Keys set was seeing John Fogerty come out as a special guest in honor of recently deceased Band drummer Levon Helm. The Keys and Fogerty did justice to the classic Band song “The Weight” and I happily sung along to every line.

With the end of the Friday night headlining act I dragged my sore self back to the shuttle for a well-deserved 4 hours sleep before the desert heat turned our hotel room into a sweatbox and forced me awake.

Saturday: Considering that on Saturday I saw The Black Lips, The Big Pink, AWOL Nation, tUnE-yArDs, The Kaiser Chiefs, Andrew Bird, Squeeze, The Shins, Bon Iver, Feist, and Radiohead, and talking about each one of them would take until Coachella 2013 begins, I’ll talk about the three acts I thought were worth talking about.

The Big Pink: The first full set I caught all day from the very front row. This English group – whose sound is strongly reminiscent of The Flaming Lips – played a set full of danceable tunes which made up in catchiness what they lacked in songwriting substance. Their strongest track by far, “Superman (Hit the Ground)” was so evocative of the Flaming Lips I assumed it was a cover. Props to this band’s girl drummer though, destroying stereotypes one dance beat at a time.

 

The voice of a lion... well a whole pride of lions after the looper pedal came into play

tUnE-yArDs: Dragged to see them by a friend I made in the water line, tUnE-yArDs are a four-piece group fronted by a lady with a phenomenal voice and a proficiency with looper pedals. Using a snare drum, a floor tom, a ukulele, and her impressive vocal range – a lot of what she sings sounds like a tribal chant – to create a backing track that she, a bassist, and two sax players then jam out to. The resulting cocktail is what I’d describe as Tribal Indie-Trance music with a shot of weird mixed in. Not what I’d choose to listen to at home, but on that achingly hot day, with a thunderstorm of bass vibrating my body, I could certainly appreciate the group’s appeal.

Radiohead: Before I got to Coachella, this group’s ability to hold vast arena’s spellbound was hyped and hyped and hyped a little more. I was told about the light show, the digital screens, the amazing power of Thom York’s songwriting. When they actually played though, I was only struck by a couple of things. Firstly, by just how whiny those songs are, and secondly by how good Radiohead’s drummer actually is. I’m serious, jazz monster combined with rock session musician; absolutely worth the whole show. And the lights were alright, and the digital display was cool, but got boring after a few songs. Editor in Chief Benjamin Sutton may terminate our friendship for this, but Radiohead are an overrated act. There! I said it! Come at me bro!

Seeing as Radiohead drew the biggest crowd of the festival (possibly excluding Snoop Doggity Dog and Dr. Dre) I thought I’d talk about crowd navigation. Since Coachella is frequented mainly by couples, there are two common strategies employed by pairs when worming their way towards the front. Either the boy goes first, using his big manly shoulders to clear a path, meanwhile his partner follows demurely behind offering apologies to those he has trampled. The other technique works better on men. The scantily-clad female moves through the crowd, brushing extra close to guys who are only to happy to let a pretty lady stand in front of them. The man follows unobtrusively behind, ready to stare (and possibly beat) down anyone who looks twice at his lady friend.

As for food on Saturday, I had a burger slathered in sauce appropriated from the barbeque chicken stand, and later on a selection of noodles in a box. They were both delicious, but the noodles were far too salty and became a chore after a few bites. Any food that has to be washed down with lukewarm water that has been sloshing around in a bottle for three hours isn’t worth the exorbitant rates being charged. Still,  what else can you do? Oh right, starve.

Sunday: I was properly run down by the time I set foot in the Coachella security queue for the third and final time. It was another scorching day and the bros were out in force, presumably to soak up all the delicious bass that was oozing out of the Do Lab. They must gain some sort of dizzying high from that  sort of thing, or be utterly off their heads to start with (more likely) as I firmly maintain that music of that ilk is to a song what a caramel Frappuccino is to an Italian roast black coffee: designed for people who don’t actually like the latter.

Like Saturday I shall speak of the three most noteworthy concerts I saw throughout the day. In total though, I saw Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, The Growlers, Fitz and the Tantrums, The Hives, The Weeknd, Gotye, Beirut, and about fifteen minutes of Florence and the Machine before I fell asleep under a picnic table.

The Growlers: Beginning at 4.20 pm sharp-ish, amid a haze of what I’d naively like to assume was dry ice, the LA-based acid-surf group cranked out one grooving tune after another. I saw the band open for the Black Keys at the Palladium last year and I’ve always been intrigued by their tendency to switch from straight to swung rhythm in the middle of songs. As well as being a complete trip for any drummers in the audience, it certainly got everybody dancing.

Growlers frontman Anthony performing in a dress

The lead singer – Anthony I think his name is – also performed wearing a rather fetching floral print dress and wig. I suppose it’s one way to keep the air flowing around your sweaty regions during a lively set under a nosebleed sun (sorry, song reference).

Fitz and the Tantrums: Another band positively reeking of Los Angeles culture. Unlike the Growlers though, it is the asshole Hollywood side of the entertainment industry that Fitz and the Tantrums seem to draw their influence. Fitz himself exudes a “failed actor turned musician” vibe, generally throwing his weight around stage and upsetting his session musicians who were just trying to play their instruments under adverse conditions and without some preening Marvin Gaye/David Bowie wannabe fouling things up.  Fitz is also something of an egotist I surmise. He has a stunningly gorgeous black female singer with a voice that would make Clare  Torry gargle some extra honey. He seems to have demoted her though to the position of “sexy tambourine shaker” as he still sings 98% of all the songs. She got one verse in a cover of a song originally sung by a woman. Grrr. . .

Even though the bones I have to pick with Fitz and his Tantrums are many, I can’t deny that they’re on to something. Their painfully cool blend of Indie Pop and old school Motown is an electrifying recipe for dancing. While their album “Breaking the Chains of Love” (I think Fitz has a problem being civil with exes) can be sort of saccharine and just a little too polished at times, their live performance is certainly something to see.

Beirut: Hipster highlight of Coachella. The Eastern European folk music/indie group – also from England I discovered – were the last full set I saw before toddling off to the busses on Sunday night. The group’s instrumentation is comprised of drums, bass, ukulele (sometimes guitar), accordion, two trumpets, and a trombone. This makes for some seriously stirring music that, while weird, is quite fun to dance around to. The singer (who looks rather much like DP alum Evan Bell) has a haunting voice that wavers over the horns and feathery drums much like a wind instrument itself, which I suppose the voice is when you think about it. Anyhow, Beirut were a delightful way to end the festival – even though fifty minutes of horn swells did make my ears ring a little – and it’s always a pleasure to discover that bands are better live than on their CD. It keeps the hope that music played by actual musicians might just stick around for a little bit longer.

On Sunday I ate beer-battered garlic fries topped with grated crab and some kind of creamy sauce which, while making me impervious to any kind of female interaction, was mouth-wateringly tasty. I washed this down later with a date shake (that’s a shake made from dates, not an extra large shake you drink as part of a date… just thought I’d clarify) that I so, so wish has been Chocolate, Vanilla, Oreo, or even strawberry flavoured. . .Anything but the cloying, sweet taste of date. Still, they were the only ice cream-related product on sale at the festival (a major blunder on behalf of the Coachella organization, considering how bloody hot it was) so one can’t complain.

To Conclude: I had a fantastic weekend of music nerdery, ate some lovely food, and tried unsuccessfully not to look at the million billion mostly-naked women roaming the festival grounds. Sorry boyfriends of Coachella, but nobody was checking out her necklace. I didn’t even get badly burnt which, for somebody as pathetically pale as me, in temperatures which never dipped below one hundred degrees, is something of a heroic achievement.

My next port of call shall be Glastonbury, where I intend to trade three days of scorching heat for some good old English mud and rain. Thanks for reading everyone.

TL;DR: Went to Coachella, got dosed with acid, punched 2Pac’s hologram, Snooki is Pregnant, see you next year.


 

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