Lets face it, there is something about the weather. Tested and proven, the climate always influences and often dominates the vibe at a music festival. The opening day of the 10th Annual Coachella Music and Arts Festival at The Empire Polo Fields in Indio, Calif., was no exception. The desert weather was temperate, the crowd tempered and likewise, the music on the first day of the three-day gathering was also nice and warm, but never quite sizzling.
Produced by Goldenvoice, Coachella has two large outdoor stages and three tented stages, all hosting artists from the several alternative genres that fill the diverse lineup. Unlike other major festivals such as Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, Coachella makes it a lot easier to get from stage to stage by keeping them in a closer proximity to one another. While this is easier on the feet of the fans, it is a bit more challenging to manage sound bleed from stage to stage. There was quite a bit of bleed coming from the main Coachella Stage to the secondary stage, the Outdoor Theatre, but less from the enclosed tents.
The first impressive act of the day for me was England’s Noah and the Whale. This, even though the foursome complained that the desert heat was the hottest that they had ever experienced and claimed it was affecting their performance. Lead singer Charlie Fink repeatedly requested sing-alongs from the audience to help with his struggling voice. The best sing-along came during the last song of their set, with their catchy hit single, "Five Years Time."
The later afternoon was packed with both indie favorites and new finds. M. Ward and Connor Oberst and the Mystic Family Band played back-to-back on the Outdoor Theatre stage, allowing fans to relax in the afternoon sun, while those who were ready to get the dance party started stayed in the tents with bands like The Ting Tings and Portugal-based band Buraka Som Sistema. Based on the fact that the entire tent was jumping in unison by the end of the high-energy set from Buraka, I would say that the dance party had indeed begun.
Meanwhile, back on the main stage, the blues/rock duo the Black Keys drew a large crowd, playing many songs from last years' hit album, Attack and Release. It was a fun, high-energy set with clear sound, but I could not help from wanting it to be a bit louder. Next up on the main stage was Scottish indie-rock favorites Franz Ferdinand, whose 6:30 p.m. set was well timed for the cocktail hour that was happening for many fans, getting them into the evening groove and ready for the legends left to come.
As far as legends go, the evening lineup at Coachella allowed you to choose from a few of the biggest. This evening of legends began with songwriting legend Leonard Cohen who, at age 74, is touring for the first time in 15 years Even after all this time, Cohen still inspired awe and reverence from the fans both young and old. It was beautiful to hear the desert night fill with the crowd singing along to timeless song "Hallelujah."
Next up on the evening’s lineup of legends was Morrissey, who took the main stage at 8:30 p.m. I, however, was caught in the Mojave tent with the horn and accordion–driven indie favorite Beirut and I missed his entire set. I hear from those who were there that Morrissey covered a lot of material, but the overall success of the performance was impeded by technical difficulties, frustrating The Smiths’ front man.
The evening finished with one of the greatest living legends of our time, Paul McCartney. Sir Paul took the stage 20 minutes late, but played for an incredible two-and-a-half hours, covering songs from his solo work, his band Wings and, of course, many songs from The Beatles epic cannon. The entire second-half of his set comprised mostly Beatles’ songs, including "Eleanor Rigby," "Back in the USSR," "Something," "Paperback Writer" and a rocking "Live and Let Die," which was accompanied by a firework spectacle to add to the drama of the epic song. He did not want to leave the stage, coming back for two encores that included crowd-pleasing favorites like "Yesterday," "Helter Skelter," "Get Back" and "Sgt. Peppers." He did not finish until 1 a.m., leaving the crowd satiated, sleepy and ready to rest up for all the music yet to come on day two of the festival.
Day two at Coachella was a little bit hotter, and a bit more crowded, but overall still maintained a very tame and mellow vibe. Like the first day, it took us seemingly forever to get through the gates and onto the grounds, causing me to miss the first round of acts. I arrived in time for the second main-stage act of the day, Joss Stone. This young, multi-Platinum British soul-singer has a riveting voice that conjures images of a young Aretha Franklin in my mind. Like many festival acts, I would rather be seeing her at night, in a club, than in the hot sun, but it was still a good time. Scottish singer/songwriter Paolo Nutini followed Stone on the main stage. I could not catch much of his act, but his rootsy, Americana vibe seemed perfect for the afternoon. Southern jam rock band the Drive By Truckers were on the Outdoor Theatre stage next Nutini. Their loud, heavy drums and guitar was definitely bleeding into Nutini's more mellow set. The sound bleed from stage to stage at Coachella is possibly the worst I have ever seen at any major festival.
While Nutini and The DBTs competed for sound territory, I headed over to the Gobi tent for Blitzen Trapper. I have wanted to see this band for sometime, and I was not at all disappointed by my choice. This experimental indie band skillfully combines country and folk influences into a really big rocking sound. The tent was packed and the crowd rapt. From there, I stopped in for Philadelphia band Dr Dog. They also had a packed tent with excited fans, hanging on their every Beatleesque. I was mostly buying time, waiting for Henry Rollins who was to follow on the same stage. He packed the tent and entertained the crowd with his spoken-word act that combines his cutting political commentary and sharp wit. He told a hilarious story about getting searched and fondled by the TSA, but still managed to encourage fans to get a passport and go out in the world, and say, “What’s happening?!” He also suggested that Palestine and Israel needed to be bombed with Ramones albums.
While Rollins was pushing peace through The Ramones, Michael Franti and Spearhead were promoting their own version of peaceful living with lyrics like, “You can bomb the world to pieces, but you can’t bomb it to peace.” Spearhead drew a pretty big crowd, bringing a fun and positive vibe to the main stage. The sound at the main stage here was the loudest I had heard yet. It seemed even louder and crisper than it had been for McCartney.
As usual, the evening was full of too many bands to choose from. There is never a time that I wish that I could triplicate myself more than at a festival where I am being forced to chose from acts like TV on the Radio and Calexico; or from Thievery Corporation, Fleet Foxes, Booker T & The DBTs and DJ TRV$AM. I did my best to get in as much as I could, but sacrifices have to be made. Calexico was captivating with their Latino Americana sound, while TV on the Radio filled the main stage, mesmerizing the crowd with their heavy and sometimes haunting performance.
Much of the same mesmerized crowd packed into the Coachella Theatre for the hypnotic harmonies of Fleet Foxes. Being one of my favorite bands of the moment, I made sure to catch as much of their set as I could before heading off to catch up with the dance party happening over at Thievery Corporation. Thievery Corporation was great, but received a mixed reaction from fans when Perry Farrell joined them onstage. Thievery warmed the dancing crowd up for M.I.A., who was up next on the main stage. I chose to skip the first part of M.I.A. and headed over to catch one of my dearest loves, Band of Horses. The sound at the Outdoor Theatre where they followed Fleet Foxes was amazing. It was crisp and clear for the falsettos of lead singer Ben Bridwell.
I left with enough time to catch the end of M.I.A.’s set. She had a huge stage set with lots of lights and neon to complement the day-glo LED accents on her clothing and on that of her back-up singers and dancers. It was a spectacle, and at one point she insisted that the audience join her onstage. Against the wishes of security, people piled onto the stage to dance with her. The sound for this show was great for the samples and beats that she was playing with, but they kept the mix real low on her vocals, and at certain points you could hardly hear her singing. She herself said that she would prefer to be back in one of the tents next time.
Finishing off the day at the main stage was The Killers, who for their desire to be bigger than U2 did not hold the attention of the main-stage audience for their entire set, which was an hour shorter than McCartney’s the night before. They sounded great, played their audience-pleasing hits and even threw in some fireworks, but the crowd still thinned and opted to check out The Chemical Brothers and MSTRKRFT instead, or maybe they wanted to get out so they could beat the huge crowds for the long exit.
Day three in the desert was a continuation of the tempered vibe that began the festival on Friday. The crowds were thinner, making getting in and getting around inside a lot easier. The line-up was again littered with emerging stars and living legends, and again it was impossible to fit it all in.
The day began for me with last year's buzz band Okkervil River at the main stage. The indie-folk band drew a decent crowd, and they did a fun cover of Van Morrison’s "I Wanna Go Home." It was a nice way to start the day, but the real fun at the main stage began with rising hip-hop star Lupe Fiasco. After getting past some initial sound problems, Fiasco set the afternoon audience on fire with hits like "Superstar" and Grammy Award–winner "Daydreamin." This set got me in the dancing mood, and I let my feet lead me to Somalian hip-hop artist K’naan. His high-energy African beats and conscious rhymes reminded the audience that there is a lot more to Somalia than pirates. K’naan performed a version of a 1965 Ethiopian jazz song that he recorded at Bob Marley's family house in Jamaica.
The afternoon crowd gave a warm welcome back to The Yeah Yeah Yeahs who had last performed in 2006. Lead singer Karen O. sounded crisp and looked beautiful in a gold sequin dress, leading the band in crowd-pleasing favorites, including "Maps," which she prefaced as “the Yeah Yeah Yeahs love song.”
The last night of the festival left fans to choose from hip-hop legends Public Enemy or the father of the goth scene Robert Smith with The Cure. Fortunately, both acts went on long enough that I could catch some of both. Public Enemy gave the audience a treat and played their entire album It Takes a Nation of a Million to Hold Us Back. It was 21 years ago that this controversial album was released, but as Flavor Flav and Chuck D sang and rapped the album’s political songs, there were hundreds of fists pumping like it was a current hit.
On the Coachella main stage, The Cure played to a hypnotized audience, performing many of their hits and less-recognizable songs, tugging on the nostalgic heartstrings of the large crowd. For the most part, the fans did not seem overwhelmed, but then again, I guess that an overt display of overwhelm would be contrary to the gothic style of The Cure. Unfortunately, at the end of a long set, the biggest sound debacle of the weekend came when the sound was abruptly cut-off while the band was still playing. They went over their curfew and apparently the decision was made to just pull the plug. Smith and the band persisted, playing a few more songs with only monitors before exiting the stage.
Closing out the Sahara tent for the weekend was French House DJ Etiene De Crecy who came equipped with his own psychedelic LED cube that he controlled while he simultaneously threw some wicked beats out for the still-dance-hungry kids in the dance tent.
While the music still played on Sunday night, many fans had already begun the arduous journey out of the venue. As they made their way, there was a sense of satisfaction, but not quite elation emanating from most of them—the tempered vibe that I felt throughout the weekend was even more apparent during these last moments.
It seemed like it was a successful year for Coachella, although I am still left feeling like there was something that did not happen. This could be because so much happened last year at Coachella with acts like Prince, My Morning Jacket, Roger Waters and Death Cab for Cutie heading the bill, while this year just did not have the same level of superstardom to push it over the top, leaving it feeling a bit tepid in comparison. Not to say that Coachella ’09 was without its own magic, because there were certainly incredible moments this year in the desert, but it was just of a more subtle variety than the mind-blowing, paradigm-shifting musical experiences that I have grown accustomed to. However, magic is inherent in the live music experience and Coachella provides an opportunity for thousands of fans to spend the weekend deepening their relationships to bands that they may otherwise never see perform live, allowing them to have the chance to feel the power of the live experience, and for this I say, "Bring it on, Coachella 2010!"