Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival @ Empire Polo Fields, Indio, California (25/4 – 27/4/08)
Horse shit. If there was any one smell that could describe the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival, it would be horse shit. As soon as you parked your car the stench hit you and it followed you along until you got to the gates. Once you had security pat you up and down and you had your ticket scanned, the smell faded away; only because your other senses lit up.
Swarms of people rushing past the palm trees onto the lush green fields of the Empire Polo Field occupy your eyes while a feast of various noises travel through your ears. It’s easy to say that Coachella is just another music festival, one of many taking place over the upcoming American summer. But Coachella has something unique, beyond the diverse number of musicians featured on the weekend’s bill and the unique art works displayed around the grounds. It’s the Coachella experience – and it’s something that can’t be transported outside of Indio.
It starts out with the drive. Coming from Downtown Los Angeles, it took about three hours before we arrived at Palm Desert, our home for the next four nights. Passing all the big box department stores, fast food restaurants and gas stations of Los Angeles county, you are transported into a world of sandy deserts, snow covered mountains, billboards with messages from God and wind farms by the dozen. The off-ramp signs start showing up, Palm Springs, Palm Desert, and finally Indio – the destination of the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival. The drive is marking of arrival, that being the arrival of yourself in a musical oasis.
Goldenvoice, the promoters of the festival, had made several improvements based off feedback from its ticket buyers. As a result, the festival takes a bigger patch of land at the Empire Polo Club’s fields, meaning it was much easier to move around the grounds, head to your lockers or just find a place on the grass to sit. It also meant that there were very short waits (if none at all) to grab a slice of spicy pie pizza or go to the toilets (which actually smelt better then the horse shit previously mentioned, but only just). The only downside to the size increase was that you had to walk a fair bit further to the parking lots or the showers in the camp grounds. What was a ten minute walk from your car to the opening gate was now a thirty minute one, complete with people selling bottled water or bootleg t-shirts and asking if you have extra tickets or drugs that you want to get rid of.
The other thing to notice about Coachella is the people attending. This isn’t a festival where you come to be seen (although there are a few that fill that minority) or where you spend more money at the bar then what your tickets cost. People are interested in who are playing the various stages, but between these sets it’s easy to strike up conversation. I spoke with a Canadian couple who were able to tell me all about the Modular artists they loved (they were hanging to see The Avalanches ), while a eighteen year old dressed in a single and white underpants said that she was in bliss, “it is like the Woodstock for our generation”.
Music-wise, Friday was the strongest day of the festival. Coachella spreads its artists over five stages, so this was both a gift and a curse. A person attending the festival could run from stage to stage to stage from the time the gates opened until the final act closed. But once you count in food and water breaks, walking from stage to stage, and stopping to re-apply sunscreen or buy a t-shirt means you are only seeing partial sets. Add in the various clashes that all festivals suffer from and suddenly you have four artists that you have flown twelve hours for all playing simultaneously. But enough about semantics – let’s get to the music!
John Butler Trio greeted me as I entered the Polo Fields playing a selection of tracks, mainly those from Grand National. Used To Get High, Nowhere Man, Funky Tonight were all heard as a small but interested crowd grooved to the folk-rock beats at the main Coachella Stage, with the odd Australian flag waving for moral support. Meanwhile, Battles had an overflowing Gobi Tent bouncing up and down to their thumping bass – bringing on a small choir to sing along as they played Atlas. Similar to their performances at the recent Big Day Out, Battles played a sharp set that sounds better live then inserting your copy of Mirrored into your CD player.
“It’s hot as fuck and I need a hug, it’s hot as piss and I need a kiss,” chanted Tim Harrington, lead singer of Les Savy Fav – an early highlight of Friday. Bald, fat and shirtless, Harrington dashed around the stage sweating his arse off. Everything he did, he did with the microphone in his hand – whether it was diving into the crowd and kissing audience members, climbing the scaffolding holding the stage together or yelling at how the sun could be hotter. It wasn’t even 3pm on Friday but Les Savy Fav managed to provide one of the better performances of the entire weekend.
As the crowds spread out, Dan Deacon kept up similar enthusiasm in the Gobi. Photographers filled up the stage as Deacon set his equipment up in the crowd. After getting the crowd to participate in a little bit of pre-show exercising (“Stare deeply into the eyes of a stranger standing next to you. Now look into those eyes and think of the worst thing they have ever seen”), he got the crowd to chant ten through one, ending the chant by getting everyone to yell “MATRIX 3 – ACTUALLY A GOOD MOVIE!” From then on, pandemonium broke out in and around the tent with everyone moving up and down to the Casio keyboard style beats.
Many people remained in the Gobi as Presets stickers and blue and red In Ghost Colours glasses were passed out. The act up on stage was new-wave act Cut Copy. While there were a few members of the audience being introduced to the indie electro sounds for the first time, the majority of the audience were fans of the Melbourne based group, batting around a large beach ball with the Australian flag during their set. While the set-list was similar to recent performances at the V Festival in Australia, the crowd came away smiling after fifty minutes of fun.
The crowd may have fallen away for Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip but the entertainment value didn’t. Urging the crowd not to listen to any other English rappers (“because they’re shit”), they mentioned how much better the crowd is in having Jack Johnson as a headliner as opposed to James Blunt, before launching into The Beat That My Heart Skipped.
Over at the Sahara Tent, Aphex Twin played a laptop set mixing up deep house and hardstyle, bringing on a number of men and women in animal costumes to dance on stage towards the end. Hipster-hop artist Santogold had dancers, but they couldn’t help her out as she screeched through tracks from her self-titled album.
System Of A Down might be on hiatus, but their members were represented at Coachella, with Serj Tankian and his band the Flying Cunts of Chaos closing the Outdoor Theatre stage on Friday. Wearing a white suit with top hat, he sung, rapped, played piano and guitar throughout the band’s fifty minutes of stage time. As soon as Serj finished up, Jack Johnson appeared on the Coachella stage to a huge roar. Despite not being the target headliner for many fans of this festival he drew a large crowd for his acoustic rock tunes.
“Come with me and you’ll be in a world of pure imagination,” were the first words heard as Fatboy Slim kicked off his set in the Sahara tent – before he launched straight into Praise You. The tent was packed to the brim, with people bursting out the holes in the side and spreading out towards the beer garden at the back. The Brighton boy mixed in everything – his own stuff ( Love Island, Kalifornia, Star 69 ), Coachella past ( Arcade Fire ), Coachella present (Dan Le Sac vs Scroobius Pip) and Coachella future? (John Paul Young). It was a great way to close down the first day of Coachella 2008.
Saturday provided an earlier start then Friday due to Durham, North Carolina boys Little Brother opening the Outdoor Theater. Phonte and Rapper Big Pooh steamrolled through tracks of The Listening, The Minstrel Show and Getback, but given the time of the performance were trying a bit too hard to get the audience involved. Up next at the Mojave tent was experimental rock act Man Man, who brought some early afternoon kookiness to Coachella. All five members were dressed in white and had a small footprint on stage with several drumkits, electric organs and guitars in addition to the large number of handheld instruments. Honus Honus was the band’s most active member, quite often getting up mid-song to walk around the stage before diving feet first back into his chair.
Plenty of fans for Californian indie rockers Cold War Kids showed up at four o’clock, and they were rewarded with a fantastic set on the Coachella Stage. The four-piece was clearly in their element as they stormed through tracks off Robbers & Cowards. The crowd yelled along with Take Me Out To Dry, and the band’s performance of Hospital Beds is among some of the best live performances this writer has ever heard – simply due to the amount of gusto lead singer Nathan Willett brought to the song as he smashed down on the piano keys. While Cold War Kids have quite a following already, performances such as this one can only see the band go on to bigger opportunities.
The new-look Bonde Do Role were finishing up their set at the Gobi and had whipped the crowd up into a frenzy as all four members headbanged to Bondallica. With the majority of their crowd filtering out, member of The Polyphonic Spree Annie Clark managed to bring them all back as her performance as St Vincent. Dressed in a long silver dress and oversized sunglasses, she brought great looks in addition to a great performance of tracks off Marry Me. After going over the various modes of transport the crowd used to arrive in the desert (which included motorboat and parachute), she told the crowd that they came on a pony, which was used to launch into an incredible cover of The Beatles’ Dig A Pony.
Performing at sister festival Stagecoach next weekend, country singer-songwriter Dwight Yoakam played to a smaller, older crowd at the Outdoor Theater. Despite the heat, Yoakam and his band showed up in smart and classy clothing, complete with the bass playing wearing what looked like a very hot black suit. As soon as Yoakam finished a small group of the crowd pushed themselves forward for the band made up of former child actors, now indie popstars Rilo Kiley. Helped out by a group of friends who shot t-shirts and confetti into the audience, the band played a decent set, featuring all but two songs from their most recent album Under The Blacklight. On a whole, the performance from the band was good – but no one song stood out from any other.
Mark Ronson and his cavalcade of superstars showed up next at the Outdoor Theater, and a show is what they put on. Along with the Dap Kings, Rhymefest, Candie Panye and Kenna, Ronson brought out additional special guests for individual songs. Kaiser Chiefs frontman Ricky Wilson covered Oh My God, while Tim Burgess from The Charlatans sung The Only One I Know. The final guest of the evening was Klaxons’ Jamie Reynolds, who murdered the first half of Stop Me, before Sam Sparro attempted to save the rendition. While the performance was an outstanding attempt at turning Ronson’s album Version into a live performance, it was lacking a certain something.
Their first American performance in over a decade, Portishead’s appearance on the Coachella Stage was brilliant. The trademark boxed – “P’ logo was displayed on the big screens to huge applause, before the three-piece showed up on stage beginning new song Silence. The twelve-track set featured a number of tracks from their new album Third in addition to songs off previous albums such as Mysterons, Glory Box, and Over. Haunting yet beautiful, dark yet stunning, Portishead would have been a perfect way to end day two.
The only thing that topped Portishead was the man who followed them -*Prince*. Reportedly paid $4.8 million to play at the festival, the symbol played well past the midnight curfew until 1am, at which point he was cut off. All his back catalogue was represented well: 1999, Cream, Little Red Corvette; but the crowd were given some wonderful surprises as well. Morris Day and the Time showed up and performed Jungle Love, complete with dance. Shelia E played Glamorous Life before launching into a wicked drum solo. As for Prince – he covered Radiohead’s Creep of all things – changing a few words here and there to fit in with the mood. This was Prince’s house (even if the man can’t pronounce Coachella) and we were all his loyal subjects as Saturday at Coachella drew to a close.
It’s extremely tricky having the energy to endure three straight days of music in the desert, so a decision was made to go in late and leave a little early. As a result, Stars brought me through the gates for the Sunday session of Coachella. Frontman Torquil Campbell was freaking out that he was standing on the same stage that Prince rocked a night ago, so as a result the band stepped up their performance, performing a charming version of Midnight Coward.
Gogol Bordello was one of the standouts of the 2007 edition of the Coachella festival, jamming the Mojave tent as people bounced up and down. This year they were upgraded to a 5:30pm spot on the main stage – whether playing in 35+ degree sunlight is an upgrade is a question for another time. Their performance was decent, with singer-guitarist Eugene Hutz running all over the stage and downing an entire bottle of red wine. But it was just too similar to their performance last year; only this time around it wasn’t as tightly packed and had sound issues. I look forward to some new material from the gypsy-punks, so the next time they perform they can vary the songs they play.
Montreal born turntablist A-Trak got the crowd going but it was Kid Sister who lifted the roof off the Gobi. A-Trak started off doing a mix session with various hip-hop tracks. At one point he spun up Kanye West’s Stronger only to stop it after the chorus and say “Well, fuck my shit”. After getting the crowd to start cheering, Kid Sister popped on stage with her backup dancers and played a banging set that had everyone dancing. Beeper, Control and Damn Girl were all heard, but it was Pro Nails which got the biggest roar from the audience. Begging to do one more, the set came to a close as the backing track faded out mid-song.
A huge crowd had gathered for Roger Waters as the screens located behind the stage displayed an old-time radio playing various tunes. As the crowds came together awaiting Waters arrival, I headed to the Mojave for Los Angeles based rapper Murs. While the tent was only half full at its highest point, the rapper put on a special show knowing that the crowd mainly consisted of fans of his work. Brought out first were Jacksonville, Florida based punk rockers Whole Wheat Bread who played a number of tracks. After a costume change where Murs went from black tracksuit to white suit and tie and performed a few more songs off forthcoming album Murs For President. Finally, he brought out the crew Living Legends who all came out and performed together. The set had everyone throwing their Ls up to the sky. Easily the best rap set of the entire weekend, but no-one saw it.
Back at the Coachella Stage, Roger Waters was playing Sheep and it was time to release the giant inflatable pig. Painted with messages promoting Obama ‘08 and dropping flyers promoting the same thing, the pig floated behind the stage before accidentally being released (and almost running straight into a plane). After a short break, Waters returned to play Dark Side Of The Moon in full surround sound and with special effects a-plenty. A final encore included Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2) and Comfortably Numb closed proceedings. To complete the festival, Justice played the Sahara tent with not even enough room to squeeze a child’s body inside.
With that, Coachella was over for another year. People cleaned out lockers, packed up their camping gear and started the drive back to wherever they call home. Walking through the parking lot on the way back, some of the locations people drove from were astounding. Washington State, British Colombia, Texas, even New Jersey. People were driving for over twenty-four hours to get to the middle of the desert, just so they could party for three-and-a-bit days. Despite this year’s line-up being one of the most disappointing in recent years, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone leaving feeling unsatisfied.
The Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival is the definition of a destination festival and worth travelling the fifteen hours or so from the east coast of Australia to get to, no matter who is playing. With next year’s festival being the tenth anniversary celebration, who knows who Goldenvoice will book? Start sticking that spare change into your piggy bank right now. I know I will.