I was somewhere around Indio, in the apex of the desert, when Tommy Lee kicked in. As I walked through the manicured grass, happily eating corn on the cob, the thin and dust-caked Motley Crue drummer ran up to me, weaving his arms and torso in a spastic model of the Axl Rose snake dance. I continued gnawing on the corn, and flicked my eyes upward in annoyance. He chuckled and regrouped with his bleached-blonde entourage to continue down the field, toward the throbbing bass of Daft Punk.
Even without the icky hair-metal run-ins, this year’s Coachella Festival still would have been the strangest one yet. The cultural oasis of the Colorado Desert (held May 29-30) featured a predictably strong lineup of eclectic indie artists but, pivotally, an additional interest in capturing the mainstream crowd. From Kanye West’s shining ego on Saturday to Madonna’s short-and-skanky dance tent appearance Sunday, the indie snob’s once-safe haven was taken over by squealing strangers – and two sold-out days later, it’s hard to tell whether Coachella will continue down the beaten pop path.
Whatever. For the most part, Coachella still retained its joyous communal atmosphere, a kaleidoscopic place where alternative art reigns and nobody knows your name. (And there are celebrities under every rock.) For me, it was The End: the final fling before graduation, the last irresponsible trip with my best friends. But it was also the beginning, as I discovered thanks to some artists, some new opportunities, and a chance meeting with my very own Yoda, though taller and with some ketchup in his beard.
Despite the bright afternoon sunlight, it was raining in the Walkmen’s hearts. The dapperly dressed New Yorkers crunched through their wistful main-stage set, engaging the crowd midway with their “O.C”-approved hit “Little House of Savages.” Lead singer Hamilton Leihauser must savage his throat on a daily basis – his gravely howl was painful just to hear.
Animal Collective had some technical difficulties and a generally disorganized sound. After opening a typical psych-rock jam with calm arpeggios, they released a wall of miasmic feedback that visibly shook the head-bobbing audience. Equally alarming was singer Avey Tares’s occasional fits of cackling, apropos of nothing this sober reporter could grasp.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, 2005’s big word-of-mouth buzz band, proved honest folk – they asked people to clap, and agreed amicably when they did. Their performance was dominated by echoing lead guitars against their melodic pop backing; their stuffed tent audience spilled outside and saw a mild riot of angry hipsters who couldn’t see, and also couldn’t fight respectably. The staid performance wasn’t engaging, though that could have been due to some travel woes.
“We got on the wrong road and couldn’t find the parking pass,” growled impenetrably surly singer Alec Ounsworth backstage.
Common brought his subtle charm (for some reason, I really want to pinch his cheeks) to the main stage for an apparent Hip Hop 101 seminar. He explained the basics of turntablism to the largely white audience and, in a very Enrique Iglesias move, invited a lucky lady onstage to groove with him. (Her reticent conversation and jerky ‘dance’ moves led to an unspeakably awkward encounter.) Still, his hopeful commentaries were intellectual and affecting.
Kanye West, Coachella’s surprise late addition, arrived a superstar 30 minutes late. He opened with “Diamonds From Sierra Leon,” egging on his string quartet and stomping around the stage with impressive bravado. (He’s really cocky or really honest, if not both.) He paused to further his Guinness Record of post-Grammy bitching before launching into “Gold Digger,” finally adding, “White people, this is your only chance to say nigga!” His crowd was a vividly atypical one for Coachella – aside from the mildly curious alterna-kids, most were dressed in slouched athletic wear and rapping along to every Top-Ten word.
Two tents and one world away, former Frou Frou vocalist Imogen Heap played a gorgeously ethereal set. Decked in feathers and flowers like a Summer of Love bag lady, and with a matching embellished stage, she more than proved her solo abilities. Her sparse rendition of “The Walk,” accompanied with soft plaintive keyboard, was especially beautiful, and her multi-octave vocals remained husky and strong.
Sigur Ros chilled the blissed-out Kanye crowd with their mountainous guitars and distorted, piercing Nordic wailings. (I revoke my former statement that the vocals sound girly – those lasses would have to live in a different galaxy.) They started small with thin treble and then rose to an astonishingly broad climax, the guitars roaring in unison to the throbbing of an earthquake. The tribal drumbeat and creepy siren voice were much more intense than their recordings predicted; six strings have never sounded so close to a symphony, and the air shook with palpable force. (It was during this shattering set that I crossed paths with Sean Lennon and engaged the spawn of Yoko in a photo to show my Beatles professor.)
Franz Ferdinand flashed their perfectly-honed live abilities with a raucously fun stroll, though “Eleanor Put Your Boots On” was disappointing without live brass accompaniment. Still, they sincerely appeared to enjoy their time, and it was infectious; singer Alex Kapranos hit his notes in a firmly cheeky croon and grinned down at the funereal press photographers, shockingly drawing some responses. Songs were rapid and precise; I marveled at how tight they were, ironically as they were playing “Michael.” (They’ve got to be secure gents; Kapranos wore viciously contrasting stripes and jumped backwards onto the bass kit, his royal package right in drummer Paul Thomson’s face.)
The Miss Congeniality award of the festival went to Cat Power. The former folk whiner was exponentially less lost in her own gloom (and bangs) since her last tour; outfitted in a strapless white dress and perfectly groomed locks, she clapped, laughed, and danced(?!?) throughout her countrified set. With her smart backing band, “Up and Gone” sounded wonderfully clean, and her solo version of “Where Is My Love” carried her lovely, throaty voice into the rafters. (It was comforting to see her still carry something black, though, when she hauled a dark guitar onto her shoulders.) New sound, new girl – who needs Vincent Gallo?
Depeche Mode revealed their vision of the future – though a vision likely conceived in 1986 – with a silvery set and UFO orb with piped lights. Despite singer Dave Gahan’s acrobatic mic-stand twirling and age-defying abs, the show bellied up with too many repetitive, mid-tempo new tunes before appeasing the audience with older hits. The blues-infused “Personal Jesus” and shrieking “Enjoy the Silence” brought them into good form, and sounded to have scarcely aged. Gahan pranced in various states of undress and flipped his hands furiously in gesticulation; by the encore, a vintage selection (1981’s “Photographic,” executed gloriously), he was visibly slammed by the effort.
She Wants Revenge paid attention, and minutes later unconvincingly angled for a similar 80s revival. (The tepid Tommy Lee encounter occurred right around here – another shudder-inducing look backwards.) Dressed like a more homoerotic Killers, the group demonstrated what would’ve happened if Ian Curtis had severe nasal congestion, and then a lobotomy. After hearing singer Justin Warfield imperiously address the audience and croon a cappella, “Run run run, would you wear that black liner, baby?” the real name became She Wants to Go On A Homicidal Rampage After Whoever Encouraged You.
Daft Punk shoved their volumes of buzzy drum-and-bass into the dance tent, where exuberant ravers flooded deep outside the confines. (Before they started, director Michel Gondry cut through the crowd and did a full-body brush past me; I wanted to scream orgasmically in French.) The dance duo arrived (after six years of absence) to a rabid reception and decked in shiny cyborg-Supertrooper helmets against predominantly red and blue lights, which greatly aided the effect of their electronic ratcheting. Their evilly cool playlist opened with “Robot Rock” and peaked with “Technologic,” which timed perfectly with the red neon words flashing behind their triangular mixing platform, and their roof-tearing, cactus-shaking rendition of “Around the World.” The girl next to me was so moved, she spent the entire set shrieking in one long, continuous hyperventilation of “Raaaaaah!”
Mates of State may be in precious indie love, but that doesn’t conquer all; their closely contrasting voices sounded thin and flat live. They played up their atonal endings, extending them into next year, but the harmonies sounded coarse against their finer-tuned instruments. The exact opposite problem struck Ted Leo and the Pharmacists – Ted’s emo-tinged voice rang through clearly but his guitars were mushy and unfocused.
Metric was the surprise hit of the day; their mathy dance rock exploded with energy. Despite a shakier start, they morphed into confident performers, jerking in electrocuted fury and a controlling a powerful wave of noise that left the crowd in hysterics. “Ask not what your country can do for your cunt,” wailed singer Emily Haines over a jittery and crescendoing instrumental jam. But the energy didn’t last long.
“We’ve been doing press and stuff since 9 this morning,” grumbled drummer Joules Scott-Key after their set. “The desert is hard work.”
The British Invasion of Coachella resumed with Jamie Lidell, a strange and fascinating hybrid of styles. He beat-boxed and mixed while sampling his voice simultaneously, bringing his boy band-style R&B croon over stuttered electronic scatting and raising both to an overpowering sonic roar. He twitched and writhed throughout, accompanied by a roadie whose only purpose seemed to be giving him jackets, and then wrestling them away. (Now that’s an authentic bizarre Coachella sight.)
Sleater-Kinney rocked hardcore, stretching their diverse catalogue into a fierce attack. “We have one more 25-minute song for you!” screamed Carrie Brownstein; it ended up being “Entertain.” They also took their stage time to diss Madonna, imploring the crowd to look elsewhere for their holiday. Next to them, Bloc Party returned for a second consecutive year to bring the noise and the British electrorock funk, to great effect. (They also riffed on Thus Spoke Zarathustra with me later, in what may have been the most flippantly cerebral interview experience I’ll ever know.)
The Yeah Yeah Yeahs sizzled on the same stage next; Karen O was not as outlandish a performer as before, but she still charged around the stage, pumped the mic, and grinned exuberantly throughout. Most of the time, anyway – guitarist Nick Zinner denied the SPIN story that painted the band on the outs, but he and Karen had zero chemistry when they sidled up for a supposedly intimate moment. They dedicated “Maps” to their biggest audience ever and meshed their mellower new release well into the old.
Madonna, the most commercial artist to ever play Coachella, was scheduled immediately after in the dance stage (in her first festival performance anywhere), and caused a mass exodus there. The restless and booing crowd waited hundreds-deep outside the tent confines, and the hipster-meets-mainstream crowd were less than friendly. Here, more than anything, seemed the corporatization of the beloved festival – and Madonna’s polished crotch-grabbing hardly seemed contradictory.
Her surreal performance – at first stunning in her star power, then boring when that faded – lasted under an hour and featured new songs and her old dominatrix tricks. She opened with “Hung Up,” and the showbiz glitz and flagrant single promotion was stark contrast to the rest of anti-hero performers. By the end, she seemed tired, and snarled “Don’t throw water on my stage, motherfuckers!” before mopping it up herself with a towel. She also continued to writhe with dancers, strip to a leotard, and demand compliments about her ass, which was a tongue-in-cheek admission of her aging but still repetitive.
Massive Attack’s giant feedback and stunningly long set battled with The Go! Team, whose relentlessly fun performance combined eclectic samples with excitable guitars and rapping. “I wish you could see this sight – it’s amazing,” marveled Ninja, the gracious MC, who soared through the first album’s tracks. The show stayed quick and unpredictable, with electronic starts one minute and soulful bridges the next.
Scissor Sisters headlined the Outdoor Stage next and brought out the closeted gay man in us all with their campy rock-infused disco. Starting, with “Take Your Mama Out,” they burst forward with gold lamè suits and Elton-influenced falsetto. Singers Ana Matronic and Jake Shears debated at length who was more fabulous, and bassist Babydaddy shook it until he could’ve conceivably broken it. They looked thrilled to be there and urged the audience to howl like coyotes, which wasn’t too far off from what Tool was doing next door.
Tool, the final and most aggravated act of the day, sloshed through new stuff, though it was their hyper take on “Forty-six & 2” that most enticed the crowd. The notoriously reclusive Maynard James Keenan was somewhat friendly, addressing the tens of thousand onlookers with, “Welcome to our first show in many years. We wanted to keep it intimate, invite a few friends.” His vocals were more powerful than the instruments, though, which was unsettling. In typical Tool behavior (interpret that how you will), they kept hidden for the entire show, drowning the wide video screens in creepy amoebic cartoons that sometimes looked like Windows screensavers. But without the artist visual, the experience just seemed like a record turned up to 11.
And with that ended Coachella 2006 and its unclear step towards a new direction but a happy return to the old. When the high-profile gloss faded, it was still a welcome exposition of electrifying culture and larger-than-life moments. In fact, my own experience was made additionally surreal by the presence of my own personal Jesus, Chuck Klosterman, the novelist and (until recently) awesomely opinionated SPIN columnist. This, to me, was a meeting with the giants, and the tall grizzled man shared some advice over lunch underneath the hot afternoon sun. But his sage and surprising advice is mine to keep, sorry folks.
Some secrets need to stay in the desert.
This is the third year Stacey has covered Coachella for Glorious Noise (2004, 2005) while studying journalism and music at Cal Poly State. She manages KCPR in San Luis Obispo, CA, which is hosting its own music festival on May 20. She also writes the arts and culture column for the Mustang Daily, where this article also appears. She’ll be moving to New York after she graduates this year.