Never start a road trip by questioning the existence of God. With just a handful of miles traveled, the innocent road trip of five freshly-scrubbed college students had already exploded into a fervent religious debate and an assortment of problems that would steadily snowball into a true-life illustration of Murphy’s Law. The anticipated five-hour drive to Indio, California, and its long-awaited Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival was dotted with wrong turns, lost Frappuccinos, unintentional drives through seedy Los Angeles neighborhoods, and the individual realizations that two pairs of tickets had been left in bedrooms 200 miles away. Eleven hours after crying a jubilant farewell to coed drudgery, we arrived at our destination surly and sleepy. Did God hate us? Or did God hate our pilgrimage towards Radiohead?
No matter – Coachella’s weekend celebration of alternative culture was worth every bemoaned mile. The two-day festival (May1-2), a literal and figurative oasis in the deserts of southern California, shone with the enthusiasm of 88 diverse musical acts, 17 avant-garde art exhibitions, 7 independent films, and a sold-out congregation of 120,000 appreciative, peaceful enthusiasts. It was Woodstock without the mud and a modern museum without the snobbery, the only kind of event that could serve as the Pixies’ comeback show, prompt Thom Yorke and Co. to break their own rules, encourage Robert Smith to lead The Cure into a playful six-song encore, and make The Crystal Method confess to tour hooky to one sand-covered GLONO reporter.
The nagging downsides of the cultural mecca: triple-digit ticket prices for both days, a lack of shade, irritating water prices ($2 a bottle), and all-day broiling heat of 100+ degrees that doubled the need for each costly swig of liquid. But for two days in Eden, who wouldn’t loosen the purse strings?
“Enjoy the sun, enjoy the day, enjoy everything about it – but most of all, enjoy rock and roll!” encouraged violinist Eric Gorfain of the Section Quartet during their opening set. The group inaugurated the main stage with their classical interpretations of popular rock, bringing their riotous violins, cello, and viola to hits by Radiohead, Queens of the Stone Age, and The Darkness. The veteran arrangers and backers to Wilco, David Bowie, and Christina Aguilera (be honest – for “Beautiful,” were you sniffling for her or for those ascending strings?) were the only act to perform for both days of Coachella and couldn’t have been more pleased.
“The atmosphere here is great,” Gorfain told GLONO. “It’s very inviting, very warm backstage. We’re honored to be here both days. This is a music crowd and it’s fun to play for them.” In fact, the reverently alluded “loudest string quartet in the world” unanimously agreed that though Coachella does not book bands for consecutive years, they would all come back as guests. (And for the record, TSOL, Black Flag, Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, and the Smiths were the rock and roll to change their lives.)
Swedish Blondie worshippers The Sounds followed on the Coachella stage with a mediocre, synth-heavy set and singer’s Maja Ivarson’s tirelessly puffed proclamations of that reflected The Hives’ bragging. (What’s in Scandinavian water?) “We’re only going to play hit music for you!” she squealed. “This one’s really good!” Minutes after they concluded and across the fairgrounds, fellow Swedish ladies Sahara Hotnights tore through an incendiary hour of tight punk, shaking their sweat into the audience and swaggering with the apparently inherent ego of their country.
Other bright spots in the blistering afternoon included Trail of the Dead’s introduction of new material, Death Cab for Cutie’s charming sing-along balladry and round denouncement of sweat-proof sunscreen, and the Desert Sessions’ cameos by Joan Jett, Mark Lanegan, and the Distillers’ Brody Dalle.
Last-minute replacement Wilco replacement Beck caused a traffic jam during his performance. His rabid audience was forced to pack into the festival’s smallest tent and strain to hear his subdued acoustic set, and hordes of bodies created both a mob outside the walls and the crankiest comments heard all weekend. “I’m here for the Pixies. I only care about the Pixies. This is not the Pixies,” griped a middle-aged man in an orange tank top who was then nudged aside by a short Mexican man calling, “Watch out, pregnant woman coming through.” (The crier’s companion, while very round, was decidedly male.)
Dusk found the Pixies in full reunion tour glory and in front of a swaying, roaring mass of disciples that stretched as far as the eye could see. The enormous video screen opened with singer Frank Black growling through “Bone Machine,” a stark contrast to the recurring, glowing smile of bassist Kim Deal. The distortion tricks of guitarist Joey Santiago led gracefully into the gorgeous “Gigantic” and a show-stopping, wistful version of “Where is My Mind?” that elicited the most screams and caused some tears in the fist-pumping audience. (No waterworks for this stoic reporter, though – “Velouria” had already seen to that.) Midway through the group’s hour-long set, Black broke into a surprisingly wide grin that he shared with Deal and Santiago in a picture-perfect flash. The arriving twilight added to the overall chemistry and serenity of the show, one with a nearly palpable audience gratitude of the rare magic onstage.
Surround-sound exclamations of “How great was that? I mean really, how great was THAT?” lasted until the stage dimmed, the audience swelled forward, and the heavy instrumental barrage of Radiohead filled the air. Amid screams that never died down, singer Thom Yorke rasped through “There There” as shimmering columns of light doused the stage with rotating colors but still did nothing to diminish his ghostly English hue. As he convulsed with arms spread heavenward and legs flailing in mysterious directions, guitarist Ed O’Brien backed him faithfully and guitarist/keyboardist Jonny Greenwood (and composer for Coachella-featured indie short “Bodysong”) hid behind lank bangs and wrenched distorted effects from a Macintosh laptop. The set rose and simmered with every off-key warbler’s favorite, “Karma Police,” and the simplistic ethereal beauty of “Exit Music for a Film.” For the predicted encore, Yorke trodded coyly through “You and Whose Army,” winking and mouthing jokes into the big screen, and led the band into the biggest surprise of the night, an extremely rare, oft-refused live rendition of “Creep” that was initially indecipherable from the disbelieving clamor of the audience. It took on a campfire quality as hands rose up religiously, voices chimed in blissfully, and camaraderie spread until absolutely nothing was more important than the moment and the song (an atmosphere several serene miles away from electronica forefathers Kraftwerk across the lawn). It was a lovely end to a lovely day.
The goths came out to play all day for headliners The Cure, standing starkly fully-clad in black armor against their tank top peers. New York scenesters Pretty Girls Make Graves competed with reunited rockers Thelonious Monster for the day’s opening audiences and both delivered unified, moving sets. Pretty Girl singer Andrea Zollo even won English points for her original simile of “I’m frying like ducks at a fair.” The Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra delivered impassioned pleas for youth voting and Bush removal, a sentiment echoed by several artists of the day, and segued into a fast set by Radiohead derivatives Muse and some seriously earsplitting guitar work.
Around the same time, hip-hoppers Atmosphere (featuring rising star rapper Slug) swore a blue streak of liberalism and the nearby Sage Francis put music to his influential slam poetry. Disappointments reared their ugly heads in the form of repetitive, arpeggio scream-rockers Cursive and uniform tech slashers Cooper Temple Clause, who filled their tent but saw traffic as many left midway for Thursday and the sweetly lulling Belle and Sebastian, who brought the main-stage crowd literally to their knees as listeners sat down, arranged picnics of pricey concessions, and chatted amicably with neighbors (and a roving man inexplicably wearing a large rectangle of cardboard and the sign “Dancing Box Man”). As an added perk to the beatnik setting, cellular reception was at its worst of the weekend, so nary a phone was sighted; romance was in spades, though, as Broken Social Scene guitarist John Crossingham ended their set by proposing to his shocked girlfriend.
Air brought the multicultural falsetto out swinging with several renditions of lesser-known tracks from “Talkie Walkie.” The ambient French pop duo failed to break a sweat or even move regularly as they slid through a mellow regime of impressively extended whistling, unironic key-tar, and dull statue poses that rarely involved cracking a smile. (Then again, they’re French – insert your own joke here.) Keyboardist Jean-Benoit Dunckel, owner of the breathy high range often misattributed to a female studio singer (and the one singing “Sexy Boy,” perhaps also unironically), conversed casually but awkwardly with the audience, stating confidently, “You and I, I think we have a good time together.”
Across the field, The Crystal Method brought yet more diversity by turning their tent into Indio’s only funky electronica club. Strobe lights pulsed against the crowded, balmy confines as dancers twitched and jumped like popcorn, batting at the fog that partially obscured their glow sticks like the artists did themselves in the past.
“We come to Coachella every year as fans and it’s fun to finally perform,” said Ken Jordan, half of the non-vocal dance duo. “We took yesterday off from touring just to come see Radiohead.”
“We just have to keep from melting,” added other member Scott Kirkland. (And also for the record, New Order, Depeche Mode, AC/DC, Judas Priest, Leftfield, and Aerosmith – Kirkland’s first cassette – changed their lives.)
The Flaming Lips dusted off their old act of fuzzy animal costumes, brightly smiling balloons, and onstage theatrics; however, setup delays and singer Wayne Coyne’s diplomatic but long-winded statements against Bush prevented them from playing more than a few songs. After emerging from a giant, translucent ball, the exuberant Coyne greeted the massive crowd by yelling, “Last night, I had a dream that we would play at Coachella and I would descend from outer space in a giant bubble. I know I just came from offstage, but I want you to go home and tell everyone I came from freakin’ outer space!” Their act did share the surreal quality of Coyne’s vision; a hilarious sing-along chorus of “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” was led by the singer and his new friend, an incredibly ugly nun puppet, and closed with another interactive execution of “Happy Birthday” for Beck and his expecting significant other.
Delays continued into the night’s closer of The Cure, with fans rustling impatiently on the field and starting up short-lived showtunes renditions. When the messy-haired gang took the stage, singer Robert Smith seemed slightly bewildered but channeled all his lovesick torture into glowing, convincing takes on the band’s most popular songs and some new ones from their upcoming self-titled album. Fan favorites “Fascination Street” and “Pictures of You” kept the crowd roaring past the expected end time, and their new single “End of the World” met rave applause but stayed close to their predictable format. In one of the most affecting moments of the festival, Smith began smiling so much through his heavy makeup that he spontaneously led the band through six encore songs and demonstrated a wide variety light skips and dances. He left the stage to smiles that matched his own, patting his bandmates on the back, and waving goodbye to the sea of delighted fans and the beautiful oasis that was Coachella.
As for the hapless college travelers? God was apparently appeased by The Cure’s lush peformance of “Just Like Heaven” because the midnight ride back into exams, deadlines, and showers went seamlessly. Despite its 2am starting time, the drive home was a lively account of the individual songs and moments that were emblazoned in our memories, a conversation that took the better of the five hours. Best yet, our initially ominous question was answered; He proved once and for all His existence, because yours truly escaped without a single blush of sunburn. Hallelujah!
Photos by Kimi Kieft.