There’s this old saying I once heard, something about how if you do something a couple times and it doesn’t work out, the third time will be really good. Mixers, I’ll be damned if Sunday at Coachella wasn’t a complete and utter charm. We were tired, we were dirty, we were wandering a field in 100 degree heat — but the gods smiled upon us, and we were rewarded for our persistence, handsomely.
My festival buddy Josh and I walked onto the grounds at 12:40 p.m., and exited at 12:20 a.m. In between, we witnessed a generation-spanning human mix tape of hip-hop and garage rock and newcomers and old-timers and one set so perfect I almost left when it was done because I assumed (kind of correctly) that it could not and would not get any better than that. Our night ended at the feet of Robert Smith and the Cure, who had been playing for nearly three hours and showed no signs of stopping. Were it not for this blog post and a pending hotel check-out time, I might still be lying in the grass of an emptying polo field right now, watching spotlights and flamethrowers slice the sky as one of the glummest bands of my lifetime made everything feel all right.
After the jump: Vivian Girls, The Knux, Okkervil River, F*cked Up, Lupe Fiasco, Lykke Li, Antony and the Johnsons, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, My Bloody Valentine, and the song that made me put my notebook down and do the Molly Ringwald like the twelve year old girl I still am at heart.
Someone’s preshow P.A. played a Sleater-Kinney song yesterday, and I got a little misty thinking about how much I miss that band. But everything has a circle of life, even chick rock, and so the emergence of the Vivian Girls — blond, redhead, brunette; guitar, bass, drums — gives me hope. At the moment, they are basically a trio of musical fetuses who play short songs with a sloppy sound mix and very little charisma, but there’s something beyond that DIY aesthetic that’s plain and true and eternal. They eschewed chatter and slapped us with feedback. I applied sunscreen and imagined their bright future.
Next, hip-hop duo The Knux had the dubious honor of opening the mainstage, and if there was ever a time for a crazy dance party, it was NOT the early set on the third day of a festival plagued by unrelenting sunlight. But brothers-of-the-biological-kind Krispy and Al pulled the same trick I saw them use on a distracted SXSW audience last month: they just keep telling the crowd to do something… until they do it. The two bounded out and demanded that noise be made throughout skittering guitar-driven rhymes like “The Train” and “Life in a Cage” (Fat Boys sample!), and sure enough, by the time they got to “Cappucino,” noise was what they were getting — along with unison clapping and spirit fingers. By “F!re (put it in the air),” folks were more than happy to learn the group-participation dance number that goes with the chorus. “Dude, this band is awesome,” said a bandanna-sporting guy next to me. “Who are they?” asked his buddy. “The Knux!” said the first. I glanced around for hidden cameras, but no, it appears that sort of exchange really does happen in real life. Nice.
Stylistic about-face at the mainstage here into the literate folk-pop of Okkervil River, who I have scientifically determined to be one of the better festival bands out there. This is based on many observations of the effect songs like “Our Life is Not a Movie or Maybe,” “Pop Lie,” and “Lost Coastlines” have on strangers: clapping, bouncing, dancing are common, even among those not familiar with this percussive, jangly bunch. Frontman Will Sheff’s newly-sprouted beard should only help engage the masses further, as beards are the must-have accessory for any self-respecting indie-leaning rocker in these trying economic times. (See: Fleet Foxes, Band of Horses, My Morning Jacket, Black Keys, TVotR, every other band not featuring a majority of women.) “Unless It’s Kicks” was their final tune, and as it unspooled Josh and I kicked up our heels and skipped our way diagonally across the grass to the tent where Canadian hardcore punk act F*cked Up was throwing down.
How fierce was this set? A friend who braved the photo pit was bled upon by enormous shirtless vocalist Damian Abraham, who was shrieking his head off down on the barricades by a tiny circle of death as kid after kid came crowd-surfing over the top. (Meanwhile, in perhaps the day’s best disconnect, the back of the tent was full of people lounging on blankets.) We’d missed most of the action, but got there in time to hear Abraham’s sincere thank you to the tent’s security crew. “I can’t tell you how many show’s we’ve had that got shut down. Thank you for being so cool,” he said. Then he turned to the fans, and thanked them for being cool, too. “And by ‘cool’ I don’t mean ‘douchebags in Ed Hardy’,” he elaborated. “I mean kids who hated high school, play Dungeons & Dragons, play video games, and hate sports. Except professional wrestling, cause that’s cool.” His band stood cheerfully above him on stage and leapt into “Police,” then pulled out a closing cover of Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” with a guest vocal from No Age’s Randy Randall. By way of goodbye, Abraham made an announcement about finding a set of Subaru keys in the pit, and where their owner could come to claim them. I would 100 percent go see that band again.
Lupe Fiasco was initially plagued with horrific sound problems — which is really the only way to describe having all of “Kick, Push” obliterated because the mainstage speakers weren’t turned on — but recovered in time for a great “Hip-Hop Saved My Life and an even better “Go Go Gadget Flow.” Meanwhile, Lykke Li and her kazoo were entertaining a sizeable crowd at the Outdoor Theatre with what she called her “Swedish techno coffee,” reminding me that I really wish Emily Haines and Metric were here this year. (I mean that as a compliment.) Li does uptempo tunes like “Dance Dance Dance” and the megaphone-driven awesomeness of “Breaking It Up” better than she does ballads at this nascent point, but that didn’t stop her from stripping down Kings of Leon’s “Knocked Up” and turning it into a sort of “Papa Don’t Preach” for the MySpace generation.
Up next in the great Outdoors was the shockingly heat-resistant Antony and the Johnsons, who triumphed over Peter Bjorn & John in their time slot skirmish despite the occasional whistly sound bleed from the Swedes on the mainstage. For the uninitiated, Antony Hegarty is typically Robert Smith levels of pale, and his music is almost orchid-like in its glistening, fragile softness. These two things are not ideal for the 5 p.m. horizontal-sun-blast slot. But it seems Hegarty had called upon his Hercules and Love Affair DJ pal Andy Butler for some “spicier” backing tracks to accompany his four-piece string section, and that cultural adaptation proved to be the savviest of moves. (Those tracks would also be the festival’s only sign of Butler, after H&LA mysteriously disappeared from the Coachella lineup at the beginning of the month.) I sat in the grass and ate a cobb salad, then drifted into a fugue state of contentment that may have lasted well into next week were it not interrupted by the furious cries of “NO!” from the front of the crowd when Hegarty announced his last song. Should serve as a lesson to aspiring festival participants both big and small: Adapt and thrive.
I’ve done a lot of griping about headliners and crowd size this weekend, so I am thrilled to tell you that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs restored my faith in this festival’s ability to provide that massive communal catharsis I so desperately crave. Their sunset performance managed simultaneous intimacy and scope, silence and power, musicianship and spectacle, happy and sad. Unlike so many of their contemporaries, this threesome has gotten nothing but richer with age, and their masterful control of the very air we breathed during their set showed an attention to craft I’m not sure anyone who witnessed Karen O’s early beer-spitting, mic-fellating antics would ever have anticipated. (Never underestimate an Oberlin grad, I suppose.) On a stage adorned with a giant inflatable eyeball, guitarist Nick Zinner, drummer Brian Chase, and, uh, that other guy (edit: that joke didn’t work; it’s Pajo, people) supported their leading lady with flare, but there was never any question on whom the spotlight sat. Clad in a cape of saucer-sized gold sequins and sporting day-glo eye makeup, Ms. O posed and stretched and bent through plenty of new material — “Softshock” and “Skeleton” were especially impressive — then segued back into well-known tracks like “Gold Lion” with ease. Hello, friends, her enigmatic smile seemed to be saying. I adore all of you. I know I’m making some weird gestures up here, but that’s just what people expect from me. Listen to these songs and have a good time, and we’ll all go hang out later. Her expression was one of instant familiarity, and all it took was the first rattle of “Black Tongue” for me to feel at home.
My first Coachella was in 2006, and the greatest moment I’d ever had in this field to date was the YYYs doing “Maps” as the sun hit the mountains and the triangle spots hit the sky. Tonight’s performance of that still-exquisite song didn’t bring about the same waterworks as it did three years ago, but I think that’s okay — not only am I in a very different personal place, it’s clear this band is, too. The Karen O who sings “Wait! They don’t love you like I love you!” these days is mature, serene, confident. She ended it by digging at her heart with the microphone — something she’s been doing to my chest since 2003 — then brought us home with the club beats of “Heads Will Roll” and a “Y Control” so vivid I lost control of my limbs. We cheered, then walked back into VIP for the set break. When I got to the top step, I turned to look out over the packed field, and finally saw what I’d been waiting all weekend to see: Thousands upon thousands of people who’d just witnessed an incredible performance together scattering in every direction at once, like someone kicked over their anthill. Finally, I thought. I’m at f—ing Coachella.
Tough act for My Bloody Valentine to follow, but if you’re a legendary noise band doing the reunion thing, I don’t suppose you care. I was useless in terms of identifying any songs not off Loveless, but after grinning ear to ear because I was getting to hear “I Only Said,” “When You Sleep,” and “Only Shallow” live and in person for the first time in my Loveless-loving life, I mostly just stood there and let the wall of sound repeatedly hit me in the face. I think it got louder as they went along, like how they put lobsters in a pot and slowly turn up the heat. I also found myself fascinated by watching Bilinda Butcher work her whammy bar while wearing a very prim twinset and heels (and not blinking anywhere near enough). MBV didn’t talk, they barely moved, they made me dance in places and ponder the mysteries of the universe in others. The set concluded with a strafing, screeching blast of flat-out racket that lasted for thirteen minutes and thirty seconds (I counted) and traveled through awesome to intolerable and almost back to awesome again. When they finally turned off the last amp, I was very glad. But I think that’s the point, right?
Finally, while I am nowhere near enough of a Cure completist to know for sure, I believe the fanatics in the front section were hella thrilled by what they got from their headliner tonight. And while it’s easy to mock Smith for retaining his black eyeliner and red lipstick and frizzy hair well into a decade where most men would have wiped that stuff off (and to be fair, he does look a bit like someone wearing a mask of himself at times), there’s a conviction in his eyes that was completely missing from that Morrissey guy’s set, and a drive to his vocals that burrows deep. This is a man who still believes wholeheartedly in his music, and in my opinion, that energy makes all the difference when it comes to engaging the casual fan. Enough hits peppered the front of the set to keep everyone whooping — I think “Killing an Arab” happened while I was in the photo pit, and I know there was “Love Song,” “Pictures of You,” and “Lullaby” after that. I picked out “Push” and “Shake Dog Shake” along the way, and then there was the two-fer of “In Between Days” and “Just Like Heaven” that had me jumping up and down like a big ol’ junior high dork. I believe the phrase “leave it all on the field” was invented for exactly what I did during the latter song, which I am powerless to resist. Such pretty sad!
By about 11:30, the crowd had dwindled to Killers levels, but Josh and I stayed on, in part because it’s my job, and in part because I was still interested in what was happening. Why do I not criticize The Cure for being insufficient headliners in the same way I criticized the Vegas boys yesterday, given the equivalent audience drift? Maybe it’s because at no point did I feel The Cure had anything to prove. They’re grownups. They’ve earned it. I don’t know. At the top of the first encore, Smith returned, all smiles. “So we’ll just keep playing until you go,” he said, then launched into a wah-wah pedaled guitar solo of epic proportions. At midnight, everything else on the grounds shut down, leaving only the goth altar to be attended. By the third song of the second encore — “Play for Today,” I think? — we could no longer stick around to see if he was serious, and we headed for the car, sleepy as hell. Maybe the Cure are successful headliners because while I knew only a third of the total songs they played, I felt bad about leaving, like maybe I’d miss something. Like maybe I was gypping myself. Like maybe I just didn’t want it all to be over.
A group of kids passed me on their way out, one boy trailing behind. “You guys don’t want to stay and watch the Beastie Boys?” he whined. “It’s a rumor,” said a girl in his party. “There’s a rumor every year.” I apologize, Mixers, for not staying to see if that one came true. It’s 5:44 a.m. and I’m totally wiped — but in the best possible way. Coachella is a marathon, a march, a mystery to me still. This one wasn’t the greatest, but when I look back, there are moments I’ll carry with me for long enough to get me back to Indio next year, and the year after that. As I told somebody last week: This festival is a lot like a bad relationship. It’s frustrating, it’s mean to you, sometimes it’s downright violent and cruel. But just when you swear you’ll never let it break your heart again, it holds you in its arms and whispers sweet nothings in your ear, and you fall back in love. For those moments — Los Campesinos! and “You. Me. Dancing.”; Paolo Nutini doing “I Want To Take You Higher”; belting the na-na-na-naaaas with McCartney; sunset with the Fleet Foxes; every second of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs — I am extraordinarily thankful. And I cannot recommend enough that you join me out here next year. Stick ’em!
Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek