by George A. Paul
Photos by Kelly A. Swift
During Steely Dan’s set at Coachella 2 last Friday night, guitarist/singer Walter Becker said, “There’s no such thing as old fogeys music – just good music,” to loud cheers.
That was a slight dig at detractors who scoffed when the veteran jazz/rock band, along with AC/DC, were first announced for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival lineup back in January. Yet those bookings weren’t all that surprising considering Roger Waters, Paul McCartney and Leonard Cohen have also played the long-running event near Palm Springs, Calif.
Good music was in plentiful supply for a variety of tastes over the sold-out weekend, which drew more than 90,000 people daily from around the world to Empire Polo Field. But those who prefer EDM had it even better, as more than a third of the 179 acts on this year’s bill were dance-centric.
While Coachella has a history of hosting stunning art installations, the organizers upped their game this year with the much-buzzed about Corporate Headquarters (sporting real people dressed as hippo businessmen and a helicopter), curved LED spokes of Chrono Chromatic and the dazzling Papilio Merraculous butterfly, among others.
Those willing to open their wallets a bit wider could indulge in fine cuisine from pop-up restaurants featuring some of LA’s top chefs.
One of the best parts about attending Coachella is the ability to choose your own music adventure, surrounded by what is arguably the best festival scenery in America. Mine started shortly after gates opened when I headed right over to the Gobi tent stage for the Ruen Brothers.
The promising young British newcomers’ debut EP Point Dume is infused with high drama and was produced by Rick Rubin. Live, “Motor City” boasted an appealing old school rock ‘n’ roll vibe, while the haunting “Vendetta,” quavering Roy Orbison-esque vocals in “Shades of Blue” and catchy “White Lies” were clear standouts. A straightforward take on The Stones’ “Miss You” wasn’t too shabby, either.
Next door at the medium-sized Mojave tent, Haerts – whose sumptuous self-titled full length debut album was co-produced by St. Lucia’s Jean-Philip Grobler – was immediately entrancing. The Brooklyn-based synth pop band drew a decent crowd, frequently recalling the sleekness of Ivy paired with a Juliana Hatfield-type delivery. Singer Nini Fabi (clad in white fringe outfit) hit several high sustained notes on the luxurious, ‘80s-tinged “Wings” and “Be the One” to rousing responses. A high point came during the racing, handclap-driven “Giving Up.”
Many George Ezra fans who attended Coachella the previous week were disappointed when the 21-year-old British folk/pop sensation had to cancel at the last minute due to laryngitis. Here, his inaugural festival appearance in America featured an immensely enjoyable set of songs from hit UK album Wanted on Voyage. Onstage at Mojave, he said, “I thought we’d be playing in a venue the size of a portaloo” and wondered if anyone would show up. No worries there: the tent was packed for the mid-afternoon set.
Standouts included the catchy hit single “Budapest,” skiffle-tinged “Blame it on Me” (where Ezra explained how bad things happen to him in the music video, so anyone dragged there by a significant other should enjoy it) and the quiet, slow-build introspection of “Barcelona.” Meanwhile, a sprightly “Listen to the Man” and stormy rock closer “Did You Hear the Rain” showcased Ezra’s deep baritone in fine fashion.
Having been wowed by a Ride headlining show a few days before, I only caught part of the recently reunited Brits’ set at the Gobi tent. Equally compelling, these leading lights of the early ‘90s shoegaze scene sounded especially sharp amid the blistering maelstrom of “Seagull” and “Dreams Burn Down,” marked by Andy Bell’s shimmering-to-squalling guitar effects and Mark Gardener’s hushed vocals.
Right before dusk, The War on Drugs provided the perfect soundtrack to concertgoers sprawled out along the large grassy expanse in front of the main Coachella stage. A winsome blend of mellow Dire Straits and My Morning Jacket, with less grating Bob Dylan-styled vocals, the Philly alt-rock band’s expansive tunes were mesmerizing, particularly “Red Eyes,” “An Ocean Between the Waves” and spirited set closer “Under the Pressure.” I spotted one fan in a donkey costume dancing and a guy in an Indian headdress doing the same nearby.
Friday’s killer performance came from Lykke Li. Inside a well-attended Mohave, the dark-haired Swedish lass expertly used smoke and shadowy lighting to create a mystique for her dark, reverb-drenched alt-pop songs. Li and her band (dressed in black) had their instruments positioned sideways for maximum effect.
Immediately captivating with “No Rest for the Wicked,” she strutted around for a spellbinding “Jerome” and vigorously hit a tambourine during the forceful “Rich Kid Blues,” which was akin to watching a musical séance. Fans sang along loudly to European top 10 single “I Follow You,” with its subtle Arabic textures and “Just Like a Dream” showed off her vulnerable side. Li concluded with the stomping, sexually charged “Get Some,” as confetti shot in the air.
Later that evening, fresh faced EDM artist Porter Robinson held court in the gigantic Sahara tent and stood out from most other DJs of the genre. That was clear from the lush M83-leaning set opener “Sad Machine,” where he sang alongside a voice synthesizer. Eye-popping anime cartoons were projected on the big screens. An upbeat, driving “Easy” (Robinson’s 2013 dance hit with Matt Zo) replicated the recorded soulful female vocal loop and had the capacity crowd dancing up a storm. “Flicker,” featuring Japanese dialogue, was a full on rager that would please Daft Punk enthusiasts.
Since my Day 1 festivities ended with a late night dose of hard rock from AC/DC, I pushed Saturday’s “must see” live schedule to early afternoon. First came an unsuccessful trip to look for certain vinyl Record Store Day titles at the Coachella music store (I miss the festival’s old stalwart Zia Records and think Southern California’s popular indie chain Amoeba Records should do a pop-up store there).
Parquet Courts’ laconic performance in the Gobi tent didn’t exactly prompt alertness amid the mid-90s heat. Although I wasn’t anticipating much excitement from the transplanted Brooklyn indie rockers, they didn’t really live up to the hype. During such Pavement-influenced songs as “Bodies Made of” and “Vienna II” off last year’s Sunbathing Animal, the guys acted like they just fell out of bed.
Over in the Mojave tent, there was a classic R&B revival going on. That’s where St. Paul & the Broken Bones channeled Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and Al Green with an excellent set of songs from last year’s solid debut Half the City.
“I camped out to see Prince here in 2008,” admitted vocalist Paul Janeway. “So, if you’ve got a band, don’t quit. Even some dumb redneck from Alabama can get here.” The nattily attired group had no trouble getting the crowd all riled up and dancing.
Boasting a two-man horn section and sweet organ work by noted session man Al Gamble, they fared best on the album’s upbeat title track and “Dixie Rothko” (the former saw Janeway go into the audience and work up quite a sweat) as well as the slow burn number “I’m Torn Up” and “Like a Mighty River.” Hozier, who was slated to play later that day, watched alongside the crowd.
There’s been a lot of buzz about Royal Blood since the self-titled eponymous debut album came out last summer. After the Brighton, U.K. duo played the Outdoor Theatre stage in the peak of the sweltering afternoon heat, it was easy to see why. They touch upon Nirvana and Black Keys territory with some Muse-type time signature changes. Bassist/singer Mike Kerr and drummer Ben Thatcher packed a mighty wallop before a huge crowd with bluesy garage rock hits “Figure it Out,” “Out of the Black” and “Little Monster.”
Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness knows how to stand out from the Coachella pack – literally. A quarter way into his thoroughly engaging performance at the same stage, the former Jack’s Mannequin and Something Corporate front man climbed atop his black Baldwin piano and quickly got up close and personal with concertgoers.
Selections from an eponymous alt-pop effort (one of my top 10 albums of 2014), like the dramatic “Canyon Moon,” the percolating synth/piano-driven “All Our Lives” and “Halls” sounded sharp outdoors.
Later, multi-colored confetti balloons exploded during a strategic moment of the soaring, life affirming single “Cecilia and the Satellite” and vibrant tarps were passed over the crowd to foster togetherness during “Synesthesia.”
A sense of community and inclusion also enveloped Belle and Sebastian’s set at sunset – especially toward the end. A female fan was invited onstage to dance during “Sukie in the Graveyard” and a dozen or so other followers gleefully frolicked amidst the band (much to security guards’ dismay) for the sprightly “The Boy with the Arab Strap.”
Leader Stuart Murdoch was in a fun, chatty mood. He said the longtime Scottish folk/pop band would “bring the mellow” (they did) and after several previous appearances here, Coachella “never gets less beautiful” (very true). Though newer tracks from Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance were more rhythmic, they worked well live beside the older chamber pop fare like “I Want the World to Stop” and stark ballad “Lord Anthony.”
Back out to the Mojave, Kasabian’s spacey dance rock drew far more people than expected, considering alt-J and Father John Misty also played at the same time. The definition of intense, the brash English electronic rock band opened with the new track “Bumblebee” and fans were definitely mad for it. Bassist Serge Pizzorno demanded a mosh pit (and got one). The glam-inspired stomper “Shoot the Runner” found lead singer Tom Meighan spitting out the defiant lyrics. Dancefloor ready single “Eez-eh” was a standout and harrowing 2004 hit “Club Foot” was powerful as ever. There was a steady stream of crowd surfers, flag wavers and assorted chaos near the stage. Later, before “Vlad the Impaler,” the craziness was taken to a creepy level when Pizzorno donned a black executioner mask.
Night Terrors of 1927 provided the early afternoon’s first shining light. The LA synth rock outfit, spearheaded by guitarist Blake Sennett (ex-Rilo Kiley) and singer Jarrod Gorbel , did a dynamic, often new wave-inspired set in the Gobi tent revolving around new album Everything’s Coming Up Roses.
They had flowers strewn between various instruments, which Gorbel later threw out into the crowd. He sang “we were so alive” during opener “Always Be One” (think The Killers-meets-Peter Murphy) and some of the ultra-dramatic songs had an optimistic bent. Sennett could barely contain his enthusiasm while playing; Gorbel gestured wildly amid the luxurious standout “When You Were Mine” (a Tegan & Sara duet on the album; touring female musicians handle the harmonies) and a good cover of the Romantics’ 1980s nugget “Talking in Your Sleep.”
There were rumblings about a special surprise for Saint Motel’s performance on the Coachella stage. It turned out to be dancing girls in bright and sparkly matching outfits that could have easily been imported from Las Vegas. It was a cool touch for the LA alt-pop band, who played effervescent songs from 2012’s Voyeur and a forthcoming major label debut. “Feed Me Now” had a festive Latin vibe with punchy horns; the slinky rock of “Benny Goodman” incorporated an old swing announcer’s voice sample; the peppy “Cold, Cold Man” revisited ‘70s pop and current hit “My Type” had people waving their hands in the air to the punchy brass-infused earworm.
Three hours later on the same stage, St. Lucia (yes, oddly, there were several bands with similar names at Coachella) was jubilant from the start. South African born, Brooklyn-based music mastermind Jean-Philip Grobler wildly played synth on an alluring “The Night Comes Again.” Grobler also showed off his fine falsetto on the tropical dance song “Wait for Love.” Standouts from the electro-pop group included the slow groove of “All Eyes on You,” the haunting EDM-minded “September” and frothy “Elevate,” where the gregarious Grobler pogoed along with the crowd. He even showed off a more suave side on unreleased song “Love Somebody.”
Jenny Lewis’ great set on the Outdoor Theatre set split the difference between her solo career (namely the stellar 2014 album The Voyager) and former band Rilo Kiley (guitarist Sennett guested on a couple early 2000s tracks). The laid back results were like the best of 1970s FM rock, with lush harmonies, clean electric guitar lines and cutting lyrics. Highlights included “Head Underwater,” “Silver Lining” and the low key alt-country of “Rabbit Fur Coat.”
Dashing over the Gobi tent, I caught a short, but sweet blast of punk rock fury from The Cribs. The scrappy British band just released their sixth studio effort For All My Sisters. “Different Angle” featured blissful harmonies from the twin Jarman Brothers. Gary and Ryan both wore cutoff shorts, t-shirts and Chuck Taylors, with the latter often turning away from the crowd as he sang and played. They gave “Mirror Kisses” a vigorous attack, while the jagged, throat shredder “Come On, Be a No-One” and needling punk/pop of older tune “Our Bovine Public” were obvious standouts.
Back at the Outdoor Theatre, Ryan Adams and his current four-piece band had the best stage accoutrements of any act at Coachella. They were surrounded by two upright video arcade games, a peace flag and cat statue, not to mention jumbo sized Fender amps. A female interpreter enthusiastically signed Adams lyrics and he later had a bit of fun at her expense.
Launching with the sinewy rock of “Gimme Something Good” (from last year’s acclaimed self-titled release), they did a well-rounded set featuring selections from various facets of Adams’ prolific career – some in extended form. “Oh, My Sweet Carolina” was quietly affecting.
The same held true for “Dirty Rain,” before it steadily built in intensity amid band solos. A lean and mean “This House is Not for Sale” was the high point. Adams dedicated “Peaceful Valley” to the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir, who he noticed at the soundboard and the song ended, appropriately, with an extended jam. “New York, New York” had a false start when the band accidentally played it in the wrong key. Adams laughed it off, saying he would’ve had to sing it like The Chipmunks. Finally, they closed with the recent hard rocking, Husker Du-influenced “When the Summer Ends.”
Anyone who witnessed Florence and the Machine’s Coachella set the previous week knew Florence Welch pulled out all the stops, jumping and running through the crowd and taking off her shirt – all inspired by the power of music. That desert liberation ended up being costly and Welch broke a foot.
Ever the trooper, the British baroque pop/rock songstress decided to return and do a semi-stripped down, truncated 45-minute set. It was still a wonder to behold. Carried onstage and seated, Welch and her band launched into “Cosmic Love,” all harp plucking splendor. She previewed forthcoming album How Big How Blue How Beautiful with three winners: the title track, a strident “Ship to Wreck” (bolstered by several female backing vocalists) and sweeping rocker “What Kind of Man.” In between, were orchestral-enriched takes on “Only If for a Night” and “Dog Days Are Over.” Father John Misty even made a guest appearance during a pleasant acoustic guitar-based duet of the Everly Brothers’ “Love Hurts.”
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