Review: Indio’s 2010 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival

jonsi22.jpgCathy Maestri

Bigger isn’t necessarily better — but as some 75,000 fans discovered this weekend at Indio’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, it can be.  (Jonsi pictured right.)

Expanded grounds, a giant Ferris wheel, hot-but-not-miserable temperatures and one of the most solid lineups in years made the eleventh editoin of the eclectic indie festival one for the books — and not just because of the record sellout or the Icelandic volcano that left several acts stuck in Europe.

The oasis setting at Empire Polo contained two outdoor stages and three giant tents’ worth of twang, electronica, R&B, straight-up jazz, pop, trippy atmospherics, rock, rap, ska, punk, hip-hop, pulsating dance music — plus a giant origami swan and funky art and light installations. If your feet don’t hurt, you didn’t do it right.

Consider this: Rapper Jay-Z, whose Friday-night headlining set made him defacto king of the festival, and wife/guest vocalist Beyonce hung around to check out a slew of the smaller acts. Them Crooked Vultures mastermind (and local boy) Josh Homme welcomed festivalgoers; “It’s good to have you here in my house.” Cult filmmaker John Waters did spoken-word humor. Sly Stone scooted across the stage in an office chair. The Specials dedicated “Doesn’t Make It Alright” to Osama Bin Laden. After his set with side project Atoms for Peace, Thom Yorke slipped in a couple of solo-acoustic Radiohead covers. And to cap it all off, Damon Albarn orchestrated a mind-boggling Gorillaz set that featured two members of the Clash, soul legend Bobby Womack, hip-hop pioneers De La Soul and some mightily wicked cackling.

sheandhim22.jpgThe 2010 Coachella appeared to benefit not only from some tweaking inspired by the Halloween weekend Phish Fest held at the site (including the Ferris wheel and only weekend-pass ticketing), but the economic demise of other destination festivals around the nation, leaving Coachella with a bigger talent pool and more music fans looking for somewhere to go.   (She & Him pictured left.)

Unfortunately, some didn’t make it. Airline disruptions caused by ash from Wednesday’s Eyjafjallajokull volcanic eruption meant the Cribs, Bad Lieutenant, Delphic, Frightened Rabbit and Gary Numan weren’t able to get to the States; the Raveonettes played without their backing musicians, Little Boots went on without her crew and Phoenix stripped down to a couple of white lights because their lighting tech was stuck somewhere.

No one seemed to mind too terribly much; concertgoers were still spoiled for choice.

But Coachella is not as much about big acts as it is about big breaks and breaking big, and that was the strength of this year’s festival. Saturday’s second-stage lineup of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes, the xx, Hot Chip, MGMT and Jack White’s Dead Weather would qualify as a major fest unto itself. It looked like the Gossip’s Beth Ditto would reign as festival queen — the band is already huge in the UK, though not here at home — until an explosive set by Florence and the Machine.

It’s more than the music that makes Coachella special — it’s the atmosphere and the setting, the quality of the sound and the staging, the creature comforts, the friendly party vibe, the dedication of music lovers willing to brave blisters and dehydration. It’s just different. And when the sun goes down, it’s magic.

After all, whereas the typical rock festival would be most likely to run out of beer, at Coachella, people lined up at  one food vendor were somberly notified that there was no more tofu.

Following are some quick observations on a smattering of the 130-plus acts who made it to the festival.


Yeasayer: Word of the band’s shimmering Middle Eastern-flavored pop seems to be spreading — the enthusiastic, dancing crowd (which apparently contained Jay-Z) spread far beyond the Mojave tent. They’re ready for their move to the outdoor stage.

Street Sweeper Social Club: Musically and politically the group still owes much to guitarist Tom Morello’s old band, Rage Against the Machine, but his project with the Coup’s Boots Riley has a much lighter, crisper sound.

She & Him: Sweet, summery twang with a retro-pop feel from actress Zooey Deschanel and guitarist/producer M. Ward; she turns out to be legit as a singer, and might even make a nice duet partner with Dwight Yoakam. Ward took over vocals for a spirited cover of “Roll Over Beethoven.”

The Specials: It may be 30-plus years since they formed, but they’re still pure fun — especially beloved in ska-devoted Southern California.

Gil Scott-Heron: Sunset was the perfect time to chill with a little jazz from Scott-Heron, whose spoken-word pieces are considered a crucial forerunner to rap and hip hop. The playful poet/musician even patiently coaxed the audience into singing along.

Passion Pit: Think contagious dance music — and maybe some helium.

Them Crooked Vultures: “I can’t get over how beautiful this is,” said Homme, surveying the giant origami crane and colored lights of the festival grounds. In Them Crooked Vultures, the Queens of the Stone Age leader has assembled a rock-lover’s dream band — Foo Fighter (and former Nirvana drummer) Dave Grohl and former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones. Homme’s versatile voice and keen sensibilties keep the music engaging and crisp…. even the extended jams.

Echo and the Bunnymen: The current edition of the early-”80s purveyors of gloomy psychedelia were as moody and swirling as ever, mixing in their own classics with a cover of the Doors’ “Roadhouse Blues.” Singer Ian McCulloch even got in a sarcastic jab about what a shame it was that Gary Numan hadn’t been able to make Coachella. Still, something just didn’t seem right… like, maybe, wearing a heavy dark trenchcoat in the middle of the desert.

LCD Soundsystem: The charmingly shambolic James Murphy and company put on an absolutely amazing set back in the dance tent two years ago, but their main-stage debut lacked the same energy. A few weeks from now, concertgoers will wonder why they didn’t go crazy the first time they heard the new single, “Drunk Girls,” which should have been a weekend highlight.

Jay-Z: You have to appreciate a guy who makes his grand entrance by slowly rising from beneath the stage, opens with the swaggering smash “Run This Town” and then politely says, “I appreciate everybody that stuck around.” Yes, putting Jay-Z atop an indie festival sounds like a risk — but there was never any doubt that he would rule it. He shows a clip of Barack Obama referencing one of his tunes during a campaign speech; wife Beyonce comes out to lend vocals on “Young Forever” — no question as to who’s running things.

Public Image Ltd.: After a couple of moneymaking Sex Pistols reunions, John Lydon is back with PiL, playing in the US for the first time in 18 years. Lydon sounded as sharp and caustic as ever — and actually seemed to enjoy himself.


Girls: Think Jarvis Cocker meets Bob Geldof meets ZIggy Stardust — sweet pop (including a cover of the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream”) that can descend into a My Bloody Valentine squall.

Beach House: Hypnotic and dreamy, sort of an indier version of Mazzy Star. Nicely supplemented with some spinning pinata-style diamonds.

Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes: Very fun, very hippie, very celebratory amalgamation of various instrumentation and lots of players (a la the Polyphonic Spree) with some ’70s pop stylings.

Gossip: Though they’re stars in Europe, the American outfit is best known at home for singer Beth Ditto’s musings and oversized figure. Until now, perhaps — Ditto has a stunning, powerful voice, a la Alison Moyet. She’s an energetic frontwoman. And she looked sleek and cool in Cleopatra-style eyeliner and a snug black dress with jeweled trim. The band has been labeled as punk, but Ditto killed with a snippet of “Lady Marmalade” and tossed in lines from the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer.” John Waters watched from the side of the stage.

corrine221.jpg The xx: The British trio’s gorgeous atmospherics were the perfect chill-out soundtrack for a hazy dusk. The band’s music has been used widely for commercials and soundtracks; judging by the large crowd at the outdoor stage, people have caught on.

Corinne Bailey Rae: (pictured right) A lovely, gentle set by the young neo-sould singer who first came to notice with her Grammy-nominated “Put Your Records On”; the death of her husband has given a bittersweet air to her latest work. She closed with a cover of “Que Sera Sera.”

Hot Chip: Another indie/dance band to graduate from Coachella’s swollen tents to an outdoor stage, Hot Chip made the transition better than LCD Soundsystem — they kept the energy high at what turned into a massive party.

Coheed and Cambria: No, the main stage was not on fire, but it sure looked that way. The black smoke was intentional pyrotechnics approved by the fire department — which didn’t keep people elsewhere on the festival grounds from freaking out for a few seconds.

Faith No More: You have to give credit to the reassembled metal/funk outfit for opening with a loungy cover of Peaches & Herb’s ’70s classic “Reunited.”

MGMT: The kids love the electrorock; the widely-anticpated set was big and fun. But fans weren’t happy that the band didn’t play, well, “Kids,” one of its most popular tunes.

Muse: The English outfit offered up an epic stadium-rock show, complete with a Jimi Hendrix-style take on “The Star Spangled Banner.” An excellent set, but after a day of heat and dust, it seemed a little long.

Devo: It’s easy to think of the artsy New Wave outfit as a one-hit wonder, but then they do “Peek-a-Boo” and “Girl U Want” and that wacky cover of “Satisfaction” and, of course, “Whip It”…. and it’s all just as much fun as it ever was.


delasoul22.jpgDe La Soul: (pictured right) It’s been more than 20 years, but there’s no hip hop as fun and as positive — a good introduction for young concertgoers who may only vaguely know the outfit as some of the guys from Gorillaz.

Florence + the Machine: Clearly the goosebump-inducing, did-you-see-that, breakthrough set of the weekend. Florence Welch and her band racked up awards in the UK with their debut album, and it’s easy to see why — she’s a knockout with those powerful vocals, that brilliant red mane and engrossing theatrical style. The intense pop is there, too, and the combination was explosive. The packed tent crowd went wild for the thrashy “Kiss with a Fist.” They clapped to “Dog Days Are Over.” Many sang along with everything. And they leaped on cue. Put money on Florence + the Machine playing an evening set on an outdoor stage in 2012.

Jonsi: The Icelandic singer’s delicate solo work is more lovely and bright than that of his other outlet, Sigur Ros, though don’t think he won’t descend into a sonic din; again, another ideal set for a desert dusk.

Phoenix: The French outfit could have played the bigger outdoor stage, but it felt more like a party at the more intimate one. They showed their spunk by opening with their irresistable pop hit, “Lisztomania,” and the set just kept getting better. Even the food and drink vendors danced.

Little Boots: We’ve seen Kylie Minogue, and she’s no Kylie Minogue. Though she tries.

Atoms for Peace: Singer Thom Yorke’s supergroup includes longtime Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich on guitar, the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea on bass and percussionists Joey Waronker and Mauro Refosco. They played “The Eraser” album in its dreamy, haunting entirety; Yorke then returned for a pair of solo acoustic Radiohead covers — “Airbag” on guitar and “Everything in Its Right Place” on piano. The music swept across the festival grounds.

Sly Stone: Rumors abounded as to why the notoriously flaky Stone failed to show for his 7 p.m. slot; his band moved to an adjoining tent and the show finally went on some four hours later — sort of. The few who managed to find it said the eccentric Stone spent most of his time in a desk chair, frequently stopping his musicians after a few seconds so he could rant. The band was finally left to its own devices once Stone departed. Disappointing for those who expected to hear classic tunes, but a bizarre anecdote for those who knew to expect the unexpected.

Gorillaz: Most of the crowd seemed oblivious to the fact that they were probably witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime set. Begun as a graphics-based side project by Blur’s Damon Albarn and artist Jamie Hewlett, Sunday’s headlining set was the first time the Gorillaz collective come to life — previously, a mix of live music and pre-recorded guest vocals played out behind video screens featuring cartoon alter egos.

Then again, stepping in front of the screens is a no-brainer when you can not only convince the Clash’s Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to play together for the first time in decades, but to wear sailor suits. Plus there was the live appearance by soul legend Bobby Womack for the new “Stylo.” Oh, and De La Soul on the cheerful “Superfast Jelly Fish.” And then Little Dragon’s (they played Friday) Yukimi Nagano on the site-appropriate “Empire Ants.” But the crowd reacted only to the singles, with a collective “oooh” when Albarn picked up a melodica to play the spaghetti-western intro of “Clint Eastwood,” and appreciative cheers when De La’s Vincent Mason pulled off a show-stopping reprise of his maniacal evil laugh on “Feel Good Inc.” But the culmination of Albarn’s nautical-themed production (the latest Gorillaz album, “Plastic Beach,” refers to a polluted shoreline) was a stunning, somber “Cloud of Unknowing” with Womack on lead vocals, a truly grand finale that went largely unnoticed by the crowd, which didn’t even realize that that was the end of the set. Nevermind; Albarn should be proud of what he accomplished and rest easy knowing it will look spectacular on video.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

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