It was hot, the porto-potties were already out of toilet paper, and the smell of sweat could not go unnoticed. Though that didn’t stop my excitement from entering the Empire Polo Grounds: site of the 10th annual Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. Being it my first time at the prolific festival, I was immediately captivated by the eclectic array of three-dimensional artwork, such as the 90+ foot bamboo skyscraper and colossal steel hand that frequently threw up the international sign of rock and roll: the devil horns. Yet as appealing and noteworthy as the pieces were, music was calling.
First up on my must-see list was Britain’s Noah and the Whale, whom play a charming style of baroque indie pop. Listening to their hit single “5 Years Time” on the drive down to Palm Springs, I imagined the upbeat tune; which contains the lyrics “Sun, sun, sun, all over our bodies;” as the most appropriate welcome to a weekend of good music under the ever-present sun. Unfortunately, I set my expectations too high. Due to a combination of both the exhausting heat and the lead singer losing his voice mid-way through the set, Noah and the Whale left many in the crowd unsatisfied and more than ready to embark on other ventures.
Hence, my friends and I decided to cool off by heading over to the smallest of the three tents, the Gobi Tent. One of the greatest things about attending an event, like Coachella, is how any individual can create their own unique experience. Thus, with the wide array of acts offered on the five stages and in the Dome, there are endless possibilities to the kind of musical experience you can choose to partake in. With me and my friends, it was all about irrational juxtapositions with no dominating genre for the day. Thus, after partaking in some indie pop, we decided to take in some good old stoner hip hop by catching the second half of LA’s own People Under the Stairs. Playing for a full tent of devotees and newcomers, PUTS seemed to frequently find ways to engage the diverse crowd, whether it be through giving the crowd a phrase to repeat throughout the course of a tune or just flaunting the LA hand gesture. While the performance would later fail in stacking up with some of the weekend’s other offerings, PUTS provided a nice change of pace and reversal from the pessimistic attitude initially set about by Noah and the Whale.
At about four, as the sun began to hit its peak for the day, we made our way to the Coachella Stage (otherwise known as the “Main Stage”) to check out Silver Lake’s buzz-band, The Airborne Toxic Event. With the single “Sometime Around Midnight” making its rounds around many of the popular rock stations, The Airborne Toxic Event brought a relatively decent sized crowd to the Coachella Stage. Playing tunes destined to be performed at sold-out arenas, the local buzz band could not consistently play up to the grandeur they present on their recordings. Yet, thanks to the appearance of an adequate string section on selected songs, The Airborne Toxic Event showed some promise for the future and the striking capabilities they possess. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the group return to the same stage a few years down the line.
Following The Airborne Toxic Event, as the heat began to finally cool, the acts only seemed to execute the opposite. As many festival-goers went to observe more accomplished artists, like The Black Keys and The Ting Tings, I decided to take a risk and watch the Portuguese newcomers Buraka Som Sistema. Best risk I took that weekend! Featuring two drummers, two rappers, a DJ, and dancer that reminded me of a mix between M.I.A and Beyonce, BSS got the crowd going from the get-go. Playing kudoro music, which can best be described as a fusion of reggaeton, hip hop, and house, I found myself quickly busting out the first of many dance moves during the festival. Though the set was cut short due to technical difficulties, the group still figured out ways to appease the crowd, whether it be throwing down a cover of Benny Benassi’s “Satisfaction” or leading the audience in a uniform leap from the ground to the air.
Around 6:00 seems to be the ideal slot for a performance. With the heat nearly faded away and a beautiful sunset in the background, the true beauty of Coachella can be absorbed and enjoyed to its fullest. Thus, it seemed awkward to watch Franz Ferdinand, who’s edgy riffs and lyrics about wild nights and debauchery seem to fit more suitably once the sun is down, play this imposing slot. Whether it was my exhaustion from the madness that ensued in the Gobi during BSS or the hot dog I devoured minutes before the band took the stage, I just couldn’t draw myself in as closely to Franz Ferdinand as I had when I saw their quaint set at Amoeba Music in January. Songs, such as “Take Me Out” and “Turn It On,” sounded rushed and unparallel to their recorded counterparts. While the band finally found their groove later on during the hour set, nothing could make up for the mediocrity that was initially brought on stage.
Like a flock of seagulls heading south, a large portion of the crowd at the Coachella Stage during Franz Ferdinand immediately jolted to the nearby Outdoor Stage, to find a prime spot to bask in the soothing tunes of the aging folk legend, Leonard Cohen. Looking back upon the performance, my initial disappointment in Cohen’s decision to ignore classic tracks, like “Suzanne” and “So Long Marianne,” seems to have subsided. Rather, I’ve decided to focus upon more of the stronger points, such as the unity of the crowd as they sang the simple, yet delightful chorus of “Hallelujah.” Knowing that I was fortunate enough to witness a classic, like Cohen, perform on stage was satisfactory enough for me.
Now what I loved about Coachella this year, was that with a simple 2-3 minute walk across the field, you could easily transport yourself back and forth through pop music history. Such was the case with my half-hour of Girl Talk in the wild Sahara Tent in between the elderly Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney. Entering from a giant blow-up grim reaper and with a posse of attractive hipsters following, Greg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) triumphantly took the stage dawning an all white outfit. Playing his signature mix of classic rock gems and KISS FM rap staples, Gillis kept the predominantly young crowd at the tips of their feet (literally) non-stop, playing everything from AC/DC to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” As fun as Girl Talk’s stage antics can be, 30 minutes was more than enough. It was time to see Macca.
Since Coachella over the years has been known for booking popular indie rock acts from the 80s and 90s, it seemed kind of odd when I first saw Paul McCartney’s name at the top of this year’s bill. One of the most mainstream acts there is, McCartney represents a previous era of rock and roll, in which musician’s relied more on Ed Sullivan and record store sales than YouTube and MySpace hits. Yet after spending the day observing the likes of Buraka Som Sistema and Leonard Cohen, I began to come to the conclusion that Coachella is not solely devoted to the next big thing (South by Southwest in Austin, Texas has already got that down), but rather, just a celebration of good music. Alas, Sir McCartney has a couple songs that could fall under that category.
Playing a more-than-two-hour set spawning his nearly 50 year career, McCartney never lost momentum, whether it be during faster numbers, like “Only Mama Knows,” or slower pieces, such as “The Long and Winding Road.” While taking a break from rocking out on guitar and bass, McCartney got a little teary-eyed once he noted that it was the 11 year anniversary of his wife Linda’s death. Yet keeping with the upkeep tempo of the whole weekend, McCartney mentioned how Linda always loved the desert and music. At that moment, the man of the weekend broke into “My Love;” a song originally written for Linda. At that moment, whether you were 7 or 70, you could not escape the comforting grasp of Macca’s set. Later on, as McCartney’s rolled through a thrilling rendition of “Live and Let Die;” backed by a fitting exhibit of fireworks; and led the near 50,000 crowd in a mass sing-a-long of “Hey Jude,” it seemed as if the show had hit its peak. Such was the case, until McCartney and his band returned back on stage for two encores consisting entirely of tracks from The Beatles catalogue! Performing everything from “Yesterday” to “Helter Skleter,” the group finally (and predictably) ended with “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band,” thus concluding a grand performance befitting of the biggest name in the industry.