One of the most prestigious and well organized live music gatherings in the world, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival got under way last Friday.
Music fans from across the globe, lucky enough to possess the coveted tickets (which sell out almost as soon as they go on sale) gathered under classic springtime California desert conditions. Hot desert winds ushered in temperatures peaking in the low 90s. Crowds at the festival were surprisingly light, considering more than 90,000 tickets had been sold for each of the two separate but nearly identical weekends of the event.
The sparse attendance, especially early on in the day before the fiery desert sunset, might be attributed to the decision in recent years to no longer sell single-day passes. The festival now offers only three-day passes to the event. Many music fans still may have been working or en route to the remote desert location, opting to attend only the Saturday and Sunday events.
Whatever the reason, the result was a wonderfully pleasant experience for music fans on opening day. From the first musical notes shortly after 11 a.m. until the final main stage set by headliners Stone Roses, it was possible for concert-goers to work their way to the front barricade of most every set. Short lines for food and bathrooms also had the young crowd in a particularly gleeful mood.
The iconic festival in the desert has undergone a metamorphosis since it was founded in 1999, by event organizer Paul Tollet. The lofty vision of Tollet was to establish a music festival model based on European-style festivals. Coming on the heels of the infamous Woodstock ‘99 festival, which dissolved into a chaotic, anarchistic ending, it was an attempt to reinvent the American festival experience.
Woodstock ‘99 was actually not so different than the original iconic event in 1969. Music fans bought tickets and came to celebrate the best music of their generation in a completely unhindered environment. Sex, drugs and rock-‘n’-roll were prominent at the relatively unpoliced event. But corporate America had a big hand in the production and charged exorbitant amounts for the necessary staples needed throughout the show.
Price gouging for food, drinks and souvenirs was rampant. In today’s entertainment world, from sports events to concerts, this corporate price gouging has become an accepted part of the business of entertainment. Oblivious fans are now willing to pay exorbitant prices for tickets, fees, concessions and souvenirs. But in 1999, it was an uncommon and shocking practice. By the final day of Woodstock ‘99, the perimeter fence had been torn down and droves of outsiders poured into the festival for free, just like at the original Woodstock concert. They brought with them cases of beer, food and even laughing gas canisters, with makeshift merchants offering a Turkish Bazaar of goods for sale.
By the time the Red Hot Chili Peppers were playing the final set, the site had devolved into a sewage-tinged garbage pit with massive piles of discarded paper items. Led by the mostly naked members of the band, the Peppers whipped the crowd into a fierce tribal trance finale. Many in the audience piled the garbage into massive bonfires and began dancing naked around the huge flames. I still have a camera lens that was singed in the flames trying to catch the revelers in their feverish state of ecstasy. Fed up with the price gouging and chaotic conditions, anarchy broke out in the crowd. Sound equipment, trucks and food stands were lit on fire and looting prevailed.
It was under this backdrop that Tollet wanted to create a more musically diverse, safer and affordable festival than the typical American model. He succeeded beautifully over the years, with one tiny difficulty— the festival rarely made any money. Only 20,000 people attended the first event, and Tollet was rightfully proud of the inexpensive offerings, from $1 bottled water to affordable food and tickets. As the crowds grew over the years, Tollet reinvested the money in ever larger big-ticket acts including Paul McCartney, Prince, Roger Waters, Madonna and a reunited Rage Against the Machine.
Legendary marathon sets lasting three hours or more marked the pinnacle of the event. McCartney played a 35-song set with a double encore that blasted through the city-ordered curfew, resulting in a huge fine. When Goldenvoice took over the organization several years ago, it changed the original model into a much more financially successful event. Gone were the big-ticket older bands, replaced by less expensive newer music stars, attracting a much younger audience. Set times were shortened, replaced by a larger volume of fresh new bands. Camping was expanded to include camping by your car. Prices were raised on everything from camping to bottled water. Promotion turned away from traditional music publications and instead was centered on glam publications such as People magazine or TMZ television. The event became a social event for the nearby young Hollywood elite, and their presence was encouraged and exploited in the media.
Today’s Coachella is a much more trendy event catering to a much younger crowd. To his credit, Tollet’s original vision of a uniquely diverse well run music festival has been kept largely intact. The shift to a younger audience has kept the festival more financially viable, and after all, that is the market where most musicians want to first connect with fans to follow their career.
The new Coachella runs just like the well-oiled machine of the old. A backstage glimpse offers a unique perspective on the sheer scope of the massive undertaking. Sometimes the media are envied for their access to entertainment venues, but the reality for the media is a myopic view of what really goes on during an event. The media are cloistered and crammed together in a tiny press tent desperately trying to get their stories out in real time. In today’s world, media must keep up with an ADD generation obsessed with instant and concise information, like that of a Twitter feed.
Photographers are led into carefully choreographed three-song or less photo ops, in massive pits cordoned off at the front of the stages. Endless releases, riders and restrictions are dealt with before the stealthy photographers run a marathon to the next stage. The artists, their friends and family, and crew workers, however, get a rare overview of the multitude of microcosms that make up the event. Each backstage is carefully controlled with separate sets of VIPs allowed into different sections. In the front of each stage is a viewing pit reserved for VIPs.
After the press photographers have exited, usually following the first three songs, the pit becomes a happy, carefree place. A jovial atmosphere prevails among the lucky few witnessing the live shows, while multitudes of music fans barricaded behind them scream and squirm with delight. Unique photo opportunities abound as the band usually becomes animated toward the end of their set.
In back of backstage, another whole set of security workers guard the outer perimeter. Here, access yields a whole new world where production people work feverishly to move food, equipment and musicians about the various stages. The outside perimeter allows an unhindered walk around the festival with re-entry possible at any of the five backstages or the VIP area. The general VIP area is set up for concert-goers paying an additional fee. It features its own food court bathrooms, shaded couches and bars with more alcohol choices, but not much more. Artists, friends and crew exist in a democratic world with a communal catering tent offering up not only sumptuous food buffets, but a good chance to mingle and converse.
As infinitely interesting and educational as a backstage pass may be, the bulk of the real fun was taking place in the crowd of youthful concert-goers. Adulate young fans stood patiently pressed against the front of the barricades, where many had spent most of the day to see their favorite bands. Others laid out blankets in the back in a relaxed picnic-like atmosphere. Electronic music fans seemed to exist in their own world, dressed in all manner of uniquely creative costumes, and attracted to the beat of the thumping trance like bass that predominates EDM (electronic dance music).
These trance fans spent much of the day in the Do Lab, a popular daytime dance village in the middle of the festival, where dancers are constantly soaked with giant water cannons by scantily clad operators on the wet patrol. Then the drenched EDM fans vacillate to and from the largest tent stage, the Sahara. Sahara has become ground zero for EDM fans, who attend Coachella, and sports the most elaborate lighting and sound equipment of any stages at the festival.
The highlight, in sheer numbers of the crowd on day one, may have been Bassnectar’s midnight set. Video and computer artists worked feverishly backstage processing live images of the massive crowd and mixing them with digital graphics. Then the technicians would coordinate the images with a stupendous light show.
Performance Highlights and Stone Roses
Friday may have had the most diverse lineup of the entire three days of the festival. Some of the more interesting highlights included:
» The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra — This oversized group of musicians offered up a quirky Japanese version of ska music.
» Dam Funk — Dam Funk from nearby Pasadena played a modern version of funk music. The name is an acronym for vocalist and keyboard player Damon Riddick.
» Beardyman — A young London-based musician, Beardyman played his own unique version of beatbox music, creating a crescendo of sounds during his solo performance.
» The Shouting Matches — Former Bon Iver member Justin Vernon laid down some classic blues rock with his new band, The Shouting Matches.
» Youth Lagoon — Young San Diego songwriter Trevor Powers brought a fresh new sound to the festival with a band under his moniker Youth Lagoon.
» Jake Bugg — A young English songwriter, Jake Bugg brought his soothing folksy solo show to the desert. Bugg has been a festival staple across the globe since he was chosen to open the introducing stage, at Europe’s most prestigious music festival, the Glastonbury festival, in 2011.
» Polica — Minnesota-based indie band Polica played a memorable set, lead by the hypnotic vocals of Channy Leaneagh. Justin Vernor, who had just finished playing lingered backstage. He once told a reporter, “They’re the best band I ever heard.”
» DJ Thomas Gold — By midday, Berlin-based DJ Thomas Gold already had the Sahara tent packed with young dance crazed fans, reveling in his string of hit remixes.
» Johnny Marr — The legendary English guitarist and songwriter rarely plays in the United States (even though he has spent much of his time in Portland, Ore.) so his Coachella slot was much anticipated. With a tight band of English rockers, he played a strong set of songs sifted from his long career. His new solo album, The Messenger, was well represented. The set also included some rarely heard Goth classics by the band he was a member of for six years, The The.
But the crowd’s biggest reaction came with each Smiths song that he played. The seminal 1980s new wave band created timeless classics, mostly pinned by Marr and singer Morrisey. Unfortunately, the songs fell flat without Morrisey’s distinctive whining vocals. But to be fair, Morrisey’s solo versions of the Smiths catalog also sound hollow without Marr’s distinctive guitar. It is akin to The Rolling Stones without Kieth Richards. The crowd nevertheless reveled in the well known classics. Marr once even played with legendary Beatle Paul McCartney. Ironically, McCartney’s son, who is also a singer songwriter, James McCartney, was playing on a separate stage at the same time as Marr’s set.
» James McCartney — The younger McCartney played a pleasant set of mostly upbeat folksy tunes.
» Metric — The Canadian indie pop synth group Metric played an upbeat set on the main stage. The band is an offshoot of Broken Social Scene, another successful Canadian indie band. Indie music was well represented on the opening day of Coachella with sets from bands across the globe.
» Passion Pit — Following Metric, two of the currently most successful and inspiring indie bands played next, back to back on the outdoor stages. East Coast rockers Passion Pit whipped the crowd into a frenzy with their catchy riffs and spirited live show.
» Of Monsters and Men — Meanwhile, Icelandic indie band Of Monsters and Men played one of the most intricate musical sets of the day, with exciting live versions of their new hit songs.
» Lee Scratch Perry — Across the field in the Gobi tent a much different musical scenario was unfolding. Reggae Dub music pioneer Lee Scratch Perry played a truly inspiring set. This icon of Jamaican music is the real deal, and his innovative band played classic reggae music in an entirely fresh and new way.
» Jello Biafra and the Gunatanamo School of Medicine — The Gobi tent became ground zero for the most interesting music of the festival for awhile, as Perry played his innovative music and then was followed by American punk era icon, of Dead Kennedy’s fame, Jello Biafra. Jello has enlisted a band of veteran hard core rockers including guitarist extraordinaire Ralph Spright of “Victim’s Family” under the moniker “The Guantanamo School of Medicine.”
The band came onstage burning on all cylinders and never let up during their hour-long set. With a persona larger than life, lead singer Jello flashed onstage in a bloody doctors coat and launched straight into some of his most classic punk anthems. Flailing about the stage like a madman he had whipped up the crowd into the only mosh pit of the day, within minutes. Jello was really the only performer with something to say other the than the usual festival fodder pleasantries. An avid political activist, the impishly glaring Biafra would launch into a political diatribe before nearly every song. From the injustice of wealthy conservatives exploiting the poor, to the false promises of president Obama as a bastion of liberal change, no politician was safe. The anarchical singer focused his frustration with pin point laser like focus on various social injustices. Jello’s show offered up the most hard core musical experience of the day.
» Palma Violets — London-based band the Palma Violets played a set of indie music with psychedelic underpinnings wowing the crowd.
» Sparks — The American veteran rock band Sparks brought their own unique mix of campy classic rock music to the festival. Los Angels natives Ron and Russel Mael have been playing together for more than 40 years and produced some memorable hits that lit up the evening crowd at Coachella.
» Beach House — An entirely different mood settled over the crowd listening to the eerily dreamy sounds of Baltimore-based band Beach House. The strange vocals of French-born singer Victoira Legrand emanated into the night air of the desert, painting the festival with her moody siren like melodies. The dimly lit stage created a dreamy trance inducing visual.
» Yeah Yeah Yeahs — Meanwhile over on the main stage, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were playing to possibly the biggest and most receptive audience of the evening. Lead singer Karen. O pranced about like an iconic rock star in an undulating outfit that could blind the audience when the stage lights reflected off it in just the right angle. The animated singer dashed about the stage performing a myriad of rock antics. At one point she stuffed her microphone down her pants and wiggled wildly. During another song she wore a light attached to her head illuminating her face like an old school horror movie. While the wily singer captured the spotlight, the band was busy laying down some of the tightest tunes of the evening.
» Blur — Another highly anticipated set came next on the main stage. English rock band “Blur” played a spirited set offering up their well know hit songs to an adulate crowd. The band has not toured together in nearly a decade. Lead singer David Albarn (also of “Gorillaz” fame) led the group in a high energy alternative music frenzy.
» A Band of Horses — The Seattle group “A Band of Horses” had an adoring mostly female crowd swooning in front of their stage, including a few well known actresses in the VIP pit.
» Purity Ring — The Canadian synth duo “Purity Ring”, also gave a moody performance that enchanted the crowd.
» Grinderman — A small crowd gathered for the relatively unheard of Grinderman. But that crowd was treated to one of the most intense sets of music of the evening , next to Jello Biafra’s all-out punk assault earlier on. Grinderman is actually the side project of London-based rocker Nick Cave. Standing in the VIP pit, a well informed Jello, relayed the history of the band, formed as a side project to Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. The band employs several members of that group including Cave and guitar and mandolin playing madman, Warren Ellis. Grinderman is a much more hard core sound than the more well-known Seeds, who played the main stage on Sunday.
» How to Destroy Angels — Another relatively unknown band “How to Destroy Angels” was playing in the next tent over, also to a small crowd. The band is led by maniacal music legend, Trent Reznor of “Nine Inch Nails Fame” and contains his new wife, Mariqueen Maandig on lead vocals. The band played behind a translucent screen emanating different colors and patterns. The intense music similar in vein to “Nine Inch Nails” combined with the screen created a nightmare like performance, detaching the band from the audience tactically, but engaging them viscerally.
» Jurassic Five — A completely different vibe was being offered up by Hip Hop veterans “Jurassic Five.” The Los Angeles rappers made a big splash in the music world in the early 90’s with their alternative brand of hip hop. The group reunited for the first time in over five years to play the prestigious Coachella festival. The band had the large crowd swaying to their beats throughout their set.
» The Stone Roses — The highly anticipated reunion show by The Stone Roses closed out the main stage but it also may have been the most disappointing set of the night. The pioneers of the Manchester sound as far back as 1983, have been regarded as one of the most influential modern day English rock groups. Unfortunately, lead singer Ian Brown’s vocals seemed harsh and forced throughout the evening. Whether he had laryngitis or has just lost his vocal abilities is unclear as the group has only just reunited after a more than 15-year hiatus. The surprisingly light crowd at the main stage dwindled rapidly during their performance. But to their credit the rest of the band jammed admirably, with an especially intense psychedelic tinged finish.
» Tegan And Sara — Indie darlings Tegan and Sara closed out the other outside stage, in front of a mass of riveted fans. While their drummer suffered a temporary malfunction the duo spent awhile bantering with the audience. “I see a lot of happy faces out there. I even saw some nice boobs. You are lucky to be at Coachella,” Tegan quipped. (You can tell the cute Canadian identical twins apart by their haircuts). Then the girls launched into a pair of acoustic songs while the drummer worked out his technical difficulties.
» Bassnectar — The biggest crowd and certainly the most youthful was crammed into the Sahara tent for the final performance of the night by veteran DJ Bassnectar. Nowadays a DJ’s success can be measured by the size of his light show. The most successful EDM artists like Deadmaus, Skrillex, and The now defunct Swedish House Mafia, offer up massive visual displays of technical wizardry. Bassnectar has come a long way since he performed on the 2004 jam cruise, in the tiny night club aboard the ship. I needed a flash to photograph him because there were virtually no lights on him. At his closing show the first night of Coachella, he stood in a towering DJ booth, flanked by massive video screens. A small army of operators worked backstage mixing live video of the crowd and the performer with computer graphics. The video was synched with a massive lighting show. Huge L.E.D. cubicle cylinders sent pulsating images throughout the venue. The crowd responded in a frenzied dance ecstasy. For many young EDM fans the Sahara tent is the pinnacle of a successful Coachella experience.
— L. Paul Mann is a Noozhawk contributing writer. The opinions expressed are his own.