Wednesday, June 15, 2011

coachella 2011 review for drowned in sound

DiS's Mark Muldoon was in the area whilst the 12th Coachella festival was kicking off. So he swung by. This is what happened to him.


All the hipsters are headed off to Coachella. Here in L.A. we call it "Spring Cleaning." - @bobbyhundreds
There's only one way to deal with playing an outdoor stage in 36°c/97°f heat, and Nic Offer - frontman of !!! - is the person that's figured it out: groin-thrusting in swimming shorts. He's also in amongst the crowd within the first 60 seconds of the set, trying to persuade people to let him on their shoulders. His play-the-fool antics are an ideal party starter.

Arriving at the main stage nice and early for Cee Lo Green, I find Ozamati are still parading through the audience playing acoustically, 10 minutes after they were meant to be coming off stage. It turns out to be an appreciated distraction, as Cee Lo shows up 30 minutes late for his set. After the first song, nobody applauds. It's an uncomfortable, remarkable moment. He explains that he only just landed, and blames festival organisers for giving him a late afternoon stage time. Fair? Debatable, Cee Lo. If not, it's a cowardly attempt to shift blame and stop the audience turning on him. To add insult, synths appear absent in the sound mix. He plays 'Smiling Faces' and 'Crazy' from the Gnarls Barkley discography, before rounding off a 20 minute set with 'Fuck You'. Without stopping, his band launch into a cover of Journey's 'Don't Stop Believing', and stage management promptly cut the sound. Clever move on Cee Lo's part, as pockets of the audience keep singing regardless. Still, it's a car-crash of a set.

Kicking off an evening of bleeps and beats, A-Trak is crowd pleasing to a perfect extent, in the (spectacular) Sahara tent. His DJ set mixes in a classic N2Deep sample, his own jittery remix of Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and he teases the intro to Daft Punk's 'Robot Rock' for three minutes, before releasing it to a baying crowd.  Only by finishing on Duck Sauce's 'Barbra Streisand' does he threaten to overstep the mark.

As the weekend continues, you can understand why. Coachella is seemingly gripped by two obsessions: the group Daft Punk, and the song 'Barbra Streisand' by Duck Sauce. It's not unusual to hear groups singing it at the main stage in-between acts, or back in the camping grounds late at night. If there's anybody in the vicinity that had maybe come to California to try and escape said track's ubiquity in their home country, then tough.

Anyway, barely a quarter of the crowd are still there once Erick Morillo takes to the stage. His less adventurous set lacks the charisma, but it's decent enough. Nobody leaves displeased.

Situated only two hours from Los Angeles, Coachella is a good place for Heat magazine/National Enquirer readers to spot celebrities. Paul McCartney appears on stage with Morillo, and at Afrojack on the big screen dancing with Usher. Jeff Goldblum entertains people entering the site with a solo jazz set. Rhianna looks moody watching Arcade Fire. Is that Elle Macpherson watching Elbow? And people claim to have seen Danny DeVito knocking about every year.

Despite the efforts of their talented MC Sgt Pokes, somebody has forgotten to turn the bass up at the Magnetic Man show. Somewhat crucial for such an act, no? Eventually - when pockets of the crowd start to sit down - somebody somewhere take the hint, rolls out the bass cannon (I hear that's the terminology people are currently using), and fires off a few rounds. The place erupts.

Bass levels are fine at Sasha's set. The only danger is not being outclassed by the CAN'T. STOP. STARING. visuals. After a while, he's up to the task, and it's a typically professional performance.

Kings of Leon may be headliners, but it's Chemical Brothers that have been entrusted with closing tonight's main stage. One wonders if the notoriously stroppy Team Followill are upset by this (or Strokes playing before Kanye on Sunday), given that there's no such suspicion of Arcade Fire's stage-closing abilities tomorrow night.

Anyway, technical difficulties mean the Chems are 30 minutes late on stage (the band reportedly annoyed with Kings of Leon as it meant they didn't get a soundcheck that morning), and we only get an hour long show. It's a brilliant hour though. 'Saturate' and 'Swoon' are the highlights. The previous criticisms levelled at their live show have been addressed: extra stage lighting adds variety, new, improved visuals have been made to replace some of their more stale predecessors, and they're no longer self-indulgently playing current album Further in it's entirety.


Saturday, and the security guard at the entrance won't let me in unless I promise 'to get laid today'. Which seems a little strict.
This day has more of a guitar theme. There's an enormous amount of goodwill for The Joy Formidable (above), and they're lapping up the attention. Rarely seen not smiling, the band make a glorious noise in the afternoon heat, and are all too happy to (literally) throw a few instruments around the stage in the process.

Twelves have either tailored their DJ set perfectly to the beach party vibe, or somebody made a very logical decision in booking them. Only when they clumsily finish with Daft Punk's 'Aerodynamic' do they misfire. They're playful though: on two occasions they start the slow build to a breakdown, reach a peak, then let the track drop at some other point than the much tried and tested 4/4 beat dance music lives by. For those of us that like to play the game 'Incorporating The Drop In To Your Dancing', this means making a big dance move at COMPLETELY the wrong time, realising, then OH NO attempting to style it out, in the hope of TOTALLY looking like you meant to do it all along. And failing.

The tent for Foals is the busiest of the weekend, and the crowd are willing the band to success. Not always a good thing, such as when clapping along at inappropriate points of 'Spanish Sahara'. Pin-drop silence would've been much more appropriate. The band feed off it though, as Yannis Philippakis recklessly stagedives off the speaker stack. Nobody catches him, but he makes it back to stage in one piece, to the audience's delight.

In a weekend of such attention-grabbing stunts, it's notable what little Broken Social Scene need to do to keep their audience's attention. 'Cause = Time' sounds wonderful as the sun sets, and Lisa Lobsinger's turn on vocals, on 'Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl' in particular, is enthralling.

BSS have the good grace to finish nice and early too, allowing plenty of time to get down the front for Elbow. It's not a busy tent, but there's some deeply fanatical people here. The setlist weighs heavily on new material, but is no worse for it. In a world of fudged, compromised festival sound, eight minute opener 'The Birds' is the most beautifully mixed moment of the weekend. And could 'Lippy Kids' have overtaken the previous competition to be Elbow's finest track?

An evening stroll reveals that Mumford & Sons are playing to their usual massive, screaming festival crowd. Except now it's in the US as well, and it's confirmation that they've reached the big league in this country too. I nip off to grab my first ever shower at a music festival. Apparently it's 'socially unacceptable' not to here.

Animal Collective. Coachella has serious affection for Animal Collective. This is a high-profile slot. For the first five minutes, a grid closes over the front of the stage, and we're treated to a Daft Punk (that name again) influenced light show that is as impressive as it is unexpected. The set design here is bat-shit crazy, more elaborate than virtually all festival headline sets I've seen, and this isn't even a headliner.

This is Animal Collective though, so they're not going to make nice with their setlist and play the hits. 70 minutes of music contains only two old songs. Meanwhile the accompanying visuals alienate anybody not on drugs - alongside committed fans, they love the set. But down the front areas of the crowd people are lying down, many even asleep. After the final song, the level of applause is lower than an audience would give out of basic politeness.

Arcade Fire are roughly 478% better than the (great) headline set they gave Reading festival eight months ago. This is a band that really wants to play hard in the big league festival headline market. They start with 'Month of May', which segues into 'Rebellion (Lies)', which is followed by 'No Cars Go'. Previously shy of stage-theatrics, during 'Wake Up' 700-ish blow-up beach balls tumble over the roof of the stage onto the audience. During the following encore, it transpires that these balls are all changing colour in sync with each other, shooting waves of light across the audience. It's a startling trick.

It transpires that these balls, embedded with LEDs and IR transmitters, as well as Animal Collective's light-grid opener and set design, are the fruit of Coachella's partnership with The Creators Project, and are exclusive to the festival. As unique selling points go, it's a compelling one: at Coachella you won't just see your favourite bands, you'll see them play enhanced performances, likely the best shows of their career.


Festival fatigue is setting in by Sunday afternoon. It's less appealing to stand in a predesignated area away from the stages, so you can pay $7 for a beer. To show you are of legal drinking age (21) you have to permanently wear a wristband with a huge ugly Heineken logo emblazoned across it. As with the previous days, a plane spends the afternoon circling the site, tailing a banner advertising the new series of Doctor Who. Presumably BBC America thought Kanye West fans and Doctor Who's potential audience were a Venn diagram match made in heaven.

Plan B is on early to a small crowd. His touring beatboxer Faith SFX starts the show, and overshadows the next 20 minutes. Later, a cheesy string of soul covers is turned to festival gold by his return. Lacking the crowd size or enthusiasm to get a mosh pit going, the band decide to have their one on stage amongst themselves for closer 'Stay Too Long'. It's fun.
It's the second show of the big Death From Above 1979 reunion, and things go more smoothly than their SXSW comeback. It's noisy, and Jesse and Sebastian seem to be having a lot of fun in the process. It's all very good natured fun.

Also, two hours earlier CSS played the Mojave tent. They have a song about making love and listening to Death From Above. This is presumably the first time the two bands have shared a bill. I'd like to know if they all hung out backstage please. If anybody knows post a comment. THANKS.

The National play an intense hour long set. Twice - most triumphantly on 'Squalor Victoria' - they morph regular tracks into intense six minute frenzies. 'England' is the dark highlight. In a show of confidence, 'Terrible Love' is the set closer of choice, and Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) joins them on guitar for good measure.

Chase and Status have a little more credibility with the US crowd than in their home land. This isn't the event set it should be though. Plan B and Tinie Tempah are both elsewhere on the bill today, yet Tinie is barely audible during album highlight 'Hitz', and when 'Pieces' starts, is that Plan B that's nipped on stage, had a word in Will "Status" Kennard's ear, then walked back off again? Still, with the brutal effectiveness of their music, it's difficult for one of their gigs to go too wrong. Certainly nobody in the moshpit is complaining.

There's time to catch the last six songs of The Strokes. Can't say I understand the appeal of their indifferent stage manner, but everybody here appreciates it. They dash through each song. People dance. Everybody seems to get what they want out of the arrangement.

Kanye West's set is the subject of the most speculation all weekend. Chatter centres on who - of the Twisted Dark Fantasy collaborators and beyond - will join him on stage. Pitchfork predicts Rhianna, Katy Perry, Kid Cudi and Bon Iver. I speak to several people who are thinking of catching the set purely because they couldn't bare to miss a rumoured Daft Punk appearance.

In the face of such speculation, perhaps the wise thing to do is go the other way, instead proving that you can do this without celebrity help. Bon Iver is the only star-collaborator. What we get instead is more a piece of performance-art, taking in classical and opera influences. It's not afraid of theatrics: an entrance on a crane moving over the audience, an ancient-Greek stage backdrop, some 15 ballerina dancers, regular pyrotechnics, costume changes and classical interludes.

Most importantly, and no doubt aware of his public image, the Kanye on show here is modest, fragile, and heartbroken. He wins everybody over. Meticulously planned, structured and choreographed, it's a class act, and a thrilling show.

This review was originally posted on Drowned in Sound here.

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