BURNING, MAN! Coachella 2009

Morrissey, Macca, M.I.A.
and more: Blurt wraps up our annual pilgrimage to the Cali desert.

 

 

BY SCOTT DUDELSON

 

Last week our roving reporter braved heat and the flesh to
take in the 2009 installment of Coachella. To view his photographs of some of
the key performers (plus the occasional passed-out drunk), go here (April 17),
here (April 18) and here (April 19).

 

***

 

DAY ONE:

 

If somebody tries to tell you that Coachella is the hottest
music festival in the United
States, believe them – daytime temperatures
generally average 105 degrees Celsius. The festival itself takes place on a
nicely manicured Polo field in the vast Mojave Desert; about 20 min from Frank
Sinatra’s old hang in Palm Springs, and 2 hours
east of Los Angeles.
And while Day 1 of the three-day event, brought the requisite desert heat, it
lacked the edgy headliners that have made Coachella one of the most respected
festivals on the planet.

 

The first half of the day was dominated by younger, up and
coming indie-rock acts, and in turn, was the most interesting part of the
festival. Early highlights included Cage the Elephant, a five-piece, balls to
the wall rock outfit from Bowling
Green KY,

and the always-excellent Hold Steady.   M. Ward and The Black Keys also took to the
daytime Coachella stages, and in the case of M. Ward, less than 1000 people
stopped over to watch his beautiful set and hear tunes from his latest album
“For Beginners.”  Not even the Black
Keys, with their crunchy blues-rock sound, and mainstream music buzz could pull
in a major crowd.  The bands set included
raw and heavy versions 10 A.M. Automatic,
Strange Times, and Stack Shot Billy
and to those who watched the
performance, it was widely regarded as the days best.

 

The lack of enthusiasm for some of these great daytime acts
likely had something to do with the presence of Paul McCartney, Leonard Cohen
and Morrissey as night one headliners. 
While all three are iconic legends, none of these artists fit the
traditional profile of a Coachella headliner, and it in turn attracted an older
crowd that didn’t fit the traditional profile of a Coachella concertgoer.  A vast majority of the crowd that attended
were only interested in watching
McCartney, Cohen, and Morrissey, and didn’t bother to show up early and catch
some of the great indie(ish) acts.

 

The most interesting of the three headliners was Leonard
Cohen who performed with a large band, and gave the crowd a set chalk full of
classics including Dance Me To The End Of
Love, Everybody Knows, Bird on a Wire, and Hallelujah.
  The rumor was that Cohen accepted the
Coachella gig because he needed the dough (apparently he lost his $10 million
fortune recently), so it was a great relief, that Cohen showed up in fine
voice, spirits and interest in giving the crowd the performance they wanted.

 

The final two acts – McCartney and Morrissey, performed the
sets you’d expect from Moz and Macca. 
Moz’s set featured an abundance of Smiths tunes (Bicycle, Girlfriend in a Coma, Ask, How Soon is Now), and solo hits
(Irish Blood, English Heart), coupled
with the occasional commentary about how ‘Meat is Murder.’ On stage Moz did his
best Moz impression, and for 50 minutes simply stalked the stage apathetically
and flailed his mic chord around like he was bored.

 

Macca’s appearance was notable for being preceded by a DJ
set that remixed the very tunes that Macca was to soon after perform.  A strange opening, but the baby boomer heavy
crowd didn’t mind, and the sing-a-long atmosphere was fitting for what was to
come.   McCartney kicked off his set with
a handful of Beatles / Wings tunes – Jet,
Drive My Car, and Got to Get You Into My Life
– before he went into an
extended run of songs from his last few albums that nobody really seemed to
know, nor really care about. The second half of the set was Beatles intensive,
and exactly what you want to hear when you see an ex-Beatle (that’s not Ringo)
perform.  Songs included Paperback Writer, Something, Yesterday,
Helter Skelter, Can’t Buy Me Love, Long & Winding Road, Let it Be, Day in
the Life, Get Back, Sgt Pepper
and the final festival sing-along Hey Jude.

 

After all was said and done, the promoters of the festival
had claimed a sell-out, but even a quick walk through the crowd during
McCartney’s performance indicated otherwise.

 

Lets see how Day 2 turns out…

 

 

 

DAY TWO:

 

Whatever bite that was lacking during Friday’s show, was
available in abundance yesterday. The event was pretty well packed the entire
day and night, and in true Coachella fashion, the field was dotted with dudes
passed out from the combination of beer and heat, the occasional topless chick
was spotted dousing herself with water to keep cool, and interesting acts were stacked
up, one after another.

 

The festival kicked off early with a furious (and
surprisingly engaging) set from Ontario based punk-rock outfit Billy Talent,
and was immediately followed by a performance from the beautiful English
blue-eyed soul singer, Joss Stone.   With
a ten-piece band in tow, Stone performed a forty-minute set in which she mixed
a couple old tunes, with a few freshly written tracks (which apparently have “only
been heard by a few people in English pubs”), that stylistically could have
been pulled from a early-mid 70’s Stevie Wonder record.   At only 22 years old, Stone has both the
talent and time, to recapture the early success she achieved with her debut
album Mind, Body and Soul, and it was
surprising that such an amazing talent was relegated to playing such an early
day-time set.

 

Impish Scottish singer Paolo Nutini followed Stone on the
main-stage, but his set was often punctured by the sound of some ass-kicking
guitar work from a nearby stage that featured Drive-By Truckers (including, of
course, frontman Patterson Hood). For DBT, though, their day-time performance
was simply a warm-up for their funky instrumental set later in the evening with
legendary Stax soul-man Booker T (performing under the moniker Booker T &
the DBT’s).  

 

Following DBT’s and Nutini were a quick succession of
politically charged sets from both Michael Franti and Spearhead, and ex-Black Flag
singer, Henry Rollins.   With Franti and
Spearhead, you get what you expect to get – a laid back, no frills good-time,
blanketed with some left-leaning commentary; Rollins on the other-hands, is one
crazy, unpredictable, and brilliant mother-fucker.   Rollin’s 40 minute spoken word set was a mix
of political commentary and stand up comedy, and although he no longer has
George W. Bush to focus his anger on, there was no shortage of topics for him
to wax poetic, be it airline security, our relations with Iran, and even Cat
Steven’s detention at a US airport.

 

As dusk began to settle, one of the festivals most
interesting acts Tinariwen, laid down their authentic Western Saharan desert
blues, while Calexico, on a nearby stage, treated fans to their authentic
vision of dusty, desert Americana.

 

Although the Killers were the night’s stated headliners,
much of the advance buzz was focused on sets by TRV$DJ-AM and M.I.A.   Coachella marked only the second appearance
by Travis Barker and DJ AM since they survived a plane crash late last year,
and when the duo hit the stage, it was hard spot an audience member without a
smile on their face. The duo kicked off their set with a wicked re-mix of
‘Welcome to the Jungle’ and for fifty minutes the jam-packed crowd roared with
excitement as the duo remixed everything from MGMT to Bloc Party, and
introduced special guest Warren G to the stage. 
By virtue of circumstance, TRV$DJ-AM’s set was truly a celebration of
life.

 

The advance buzz for M.I.A’s appearance was helped by an
unexpected ‘Tweet’ that the Sri Lankan singer sent out to her fans early
Saturday morning, suggesting that crunk master Lil Wayne will be joining her
for a couple songs.  Although Young Weezy
didn’t turn up for the performance, at least 35,000 fans did, and M.I.A in turn
delivered an exciting set that took the party over the top. Although there were
moments when she was clearly uncomfortable performing on such a massive stage
(toward the end of the set she noted “next time, I’m back in the tent. I prefer
people to sweat.”), and had to make clear that “just because [she] played
the Grammy’s, doesn’t mean [she’s] sold-out,” her fuck-all attitude and natural
charisma was enough to keep even the most demanding critic satisfied.  Lets just hope that she will be able to keep
it together.

 

Day 3 here we come!

 

 

DAY THREE:

 

Much like Day 1 of the festival, Day 3’s appeal (and draw)
relied heavily on the reputation and legacy of its headlining artists, which
included The Cure, Public Enemy, My Bloody Valentine, Perry Farrell, and Paul
Weller.   Whether it was due to burnout
from the first two days events, a lack of interest in these acts, or the
sweltering 100+ temperatures, the crowd was noticeably thinner during much of
the day, and the festival as a whole seemed to be moving much slower.   Multiple stages were running behind
schedule, and this caused many concert-goers (including myself), to miss significant
portions of key sets because there was never any certainty when one act would
begin, and another would end.   Not cool.

 

But with the bad, comes a lot of good, and the sets that I
did manage to catch were great.   One of
the most interesting acts to perform was the hard-core punk band Fucked Up from
Toronto, Canada.  Just as the name implies, the band’s set was totally fucked up.  In fact, it was so fucked up, it was
awe-inspiring.  The five piece is led by Damian
Abraham, a big, hairy beast of a man, with blood painted over his face, and a
wicked intention to remain perpetually topless.   Much like the singer of Valiant Thorr
(another totally fucked up, crazy front-man), Abraham plays hard and invites
audience participation.  During the
band’s first song, Abraham jumped over the photo pit, and somehow managed to
get his 250+ pound frame over the barricade and into the crowd.  Luckily nobody was crushed, but Abraham’s
presence ignited frenzy in the most pit, and for the next few songs this crazy beast
tossed fans left and right while his band thrashed on their instruments behind
him.

 

Shortly after Fucked Up blazed their trail of destruction,
the Brian Jonestown Massacre took the stage and performed a surprisingly tame
set.  Singer Anton Newcombe’s reputation
as an eccentric live performer is well documented, but for this performance
Newcombe instead sang dispassionately, facing his band instead of the
crowd.  In fact, it wasn’t until the
fifth song that Newcombe even looked at the audience. Not even a few f-bombs
hurled toward the stage could get a rise out of Newcombe. It’s unclear whether
Newcombe was channeling the sprit of Jim Morrison, zonked on Prozac, or just
simply bored.

 

As the day turned into night, one of the festival’s
brightest younger acts, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, took the stage and nearly the entire
festival the crowd with it (Paul Weller’s set, which was taking place at the
same time, only had thousand or so people watching).  The band, led by the theatrical Karen O,
kicked out an hour long set with tunes from their new album It’s Blitz and favorites from past
albums including a stunning version of their hit “Maps.”  Following Yeah Yeah Yeahs was the
one-two-three punch of Public Enemy, iconic English noise-rock band My Bloody
Valentine, and The Cure.

 

While the members of My Bloody Valentine, stood stoically on
stage, the sound they produced was akin to an explosion, and lifted and lulled
as the melodies demanded. The band performed much of their classic 1991 album Loveless, while Public Enemy performed It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us
Back
in its entirety on a nearby stage. The Cure closed out the night with
a two-hour plus greatest hits set (and Robert Smith would have played more if
they hadn’t gone 30 minutes over curfew).

 

After the show I spoke with a few fans and each had a wildly
different take on the festival and what day was best.  To me, it underscored the fact that Coachella
– and any festival with numerous stages and a large variety of acts – is not
unlike a ‘choose your own adventure’ story, and luckily no matter what
adventure you choose, its bound to be a pretty darn good one.

 

 

 

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