- Original publication date: 16 June 2013
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From the 19th to 21st of April 2013, I attended the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California, USA. This is Part 2 in a series of 5 articles, focusing on the first day of the festival. All photos are my own.
After Weekend 1’s bizarre weather, which included a sudden cold snap and dizzying dust-storms, it was a relief for Coachellans attending the festival’s second weekend to be able to bask in the desert heat (and then promptly find the refuge of some shade).
The experience as a South African of attending one of the world’s largest and most ubiquitous music festivals leaves one a little bewildered, intoxicated with wide-eyed wonder and disbelief at the scope and organisation of this mega-event. Your Third World cynicism makes you expect logistics to unravel the festivities at some point, but everywhere you go, Coachella has got it covered. Security, camping, technology, food & drink, and most importantly, the performances: the organisers of this event made sure that you as the festivalgoer were able to forget the rest of the world for one weekend, and immerse yourself in Coachella City, estimated population of 90,000 per day in 2013.
Even passing through the campgrounds to the stringent security check before the festival area, the Empire Polo Club reminds you of its legacy, placing the official line up posters of all previous incarnations en route. Coachella wants you to be part of its history, and to share it with your fellow festivalgoers. Stopping by the Fruttare Hangout (where two free ice creams are given to each person entering the air-conditioned den), promoters take photos of you to share on social networks, and the chalkboard walls offer opportunities to leave messages to anyone and no one in particular.
I chose to proudly drape my country’s flag across my back, which helped garner attention and spark off some conversations whilst wandering through the wonderland of entertainment. Mobile phone charging stations dotted throughout the grounds were a hive of activity, creating opportunities to bring strangers and their cultures together over the universal chore of waiting for one's battery to recharge.
Friday’s frenetic line up exemplified the global influence on Coachella, and this year, the British had staked a large claim for attention across the six stages and tents. After alternative hip hop artist Aesop Rock pleaded for the crowd at the Outdoor Theatre to “take the brain out, leave the heart in!”, the iconic indie rock god Johnny Marr launched into an exhilarating solo set in the Mojave Tent, coolly playing through his recent debut album The Messenger.
Just to remind the crowd of where he made his name first known as a spellbinding guitarist and hit maker, Marr dusted off three covers from The Smiths’ back catalogue: ‘Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before’, and the twin fan-favourites ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ & ‘How Soon Is Now?’. Although the ghost of Morrissey’s croon hangs heavily over those three hits, Marr’s vocals, whilst not being particularly showy, held up adequately nonetheless. His guitar work was exceptional however: hard-hitting and lively on the up-tempo ‘Upstarts’ & ‘Generate! Generate!’, and truly mind-bending & effervescent on the infectious ‘The Messenger’.
Moving from the melodic master in the Mojave to the Gobi Tent next door was quite an interesting change in scenery. Canadian garage rock duo Japandroids laid siege to the stage with their sweat-drenched and noisy take on classic rock and punk, soldiering on through a broken string in the middle of their first song ‘Adrenaline Nightshift’. Seemingly nothing could stop guitarist Brian King and drummer David Prowse from assaulting the crowd’s senses, as they gleefully powered through hits such as ‘Younger Us’ and ‘Night Of Wine And Roses’ from both their studio albums. King announced the arrival of ‘Wet Hair’ with a breathless “this wasn’t played last weekend!”, highlighting the two-weekend format of the festival, and attempting to provide a unique experience.
As is the case with such an action-packed festival, you have to keep your wits about you, make some sacrifices, and keep on moving. Rushing back across to the Mojave, genre-defying Alt-J were already done with starters, and had moved into the juicy main section of their set, rattling off tranquil ‘Matilda’, breath-taking ‘Bloodflood’ and hit-single ‘Breezeblocks’ in quick succession. For a band that only released its debut album in 2012, Alt-J received a rapturous response from the packed crowd, and this bodes well for their headlining appearance at South Africa’s own Rocking The Daisies Festival later this year.
With the sun hanging low in the sky, Passion Pit then took to the main Coachella stage, bringing its gleeful and sugary indie pop sound mixed with a strong dose of acerbic lyrics. Lead singer Michael Angelakos’ highly-publicized struggle with Bipolar Disorder has been a particular point of interest since the release of their magnificent sophomore effort Gossamer last July, and the band seemed revitalised, knowing the battle that often goes undocumented behind the scenes.
Their set reflected this reality, opening with the sobering ‘Take A Walk’ (referencing a man at wits’ end trying to earn his keep despite the down-turned economy), and moving onto the more personal ‘I’ll Be Alright’ and ‘Carried Away’. Not that the crowd would have noticed, judging from the mood that Angelakos and his merry men created: strictly light-hearted and life-affirming.
Friday’s dark horse came in the form of scrappy, up-and-coming British indie rockers, Palma Violets, whose freewheeling ‘sun-set’ in the Mojave kept the relatively small but dedicated crowd enthralled. Ringleader and bassist ‘Chili’ Jesson wildly cavorted about onstage, interspersing breaks between songs with attempts to get the crowd to wave their fingers in the air to ‘hold up the setting sun behind you’, and letting them offhandedly know that they - the band or the crowd; it’s hard to tell - are 'heaps better than last week'.
Even arriving a few songs in didn’t detract from the rambunctious mood, as the London lads ripped through their first three singles from their recent debut album 180 (‘Best Of Friends’, ‘Step Up For The Cool Cats’, and ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’), and began a glorious, crowd-surfing finale for ‘14’ and ‘Brand New Song’. It was like seeing a cross between a young Rolling Stones and The Libertines in their prime – a heady cocktail of swagger, chaos, and fun.
Twilight beckoned, and the polo grounds slowly morphed into a kaleidoscope of colours. The large pieces of installation art strategically placed in between the stages came to life, dominating the evening skyline along with the gigantic Ferris wheel – a hallmark of Coachelladom.
On the Outdoor Theatre stage emerged the mysterious Beach House as silhouetted figures through the smoke. Victoria Legrand’s ethereal vocals drifted over the crowd, backed by Alex Scally’s enchanting guitar lines amidst a stunning backdrop of long glass-like chandeliers hanging from the roof of the stage. This pungent romantic atmosphere perfectly suited their shimmery indie pop: the rhythmic pulse of opener ‘Wild’, the wordless sighs of ‘Lazuli’, or the nimble, cyclical riffs of ‘Wishes’. The rest of their set strung together an intoxicating mix of hits from the two recent albums that brought them mainstream success (2010’s Teen Dream and 2012’s Bloom). When Legrand declared that “it’s night time this year. Night is better, it’s more forgiving”, it was evident that the cloak of darkness was only to maintain the aura, and not mask any technical shortcomings when performing live.
This mastery was acknowledged by the cheerful Ben Bridwell of Band Of Horses, whose crew was next up on the same stage. “We love Beach House!” he declared, “We wanna collaborate with them!” Although his band occasionally dispenses beautiful ballads, such as fan-favourite ‘No One’s Gonna Love You’, Bridwell and Co. primarily dealt in soaring rockers on the night, opening with the appropriate ‘The First Song’, and bringing a light-hearted mid-song breakdown to ‘The Great Salt Lake’ (“Mama’s little baby loves shortcake!”). The mood careened between triumphant (‘Is There A Ghost’) and easy-going (‘Laredo’), as the no-frills South Carolina quintet gave the crowd a much-needed jolt of energy.
Friday night’s headliners switched around from the order of Weekend 1; a move that’d seemingly been planned and agreed upon all along. So the controversial Stone Roses – both in their history and the organiser’s decision for them to headline the festival – were on the main Coachella Stage first this time round. Despite lengthy gaps between their pair of albums and a 15-year breakup, the band’s pioneering impact on British alternative music is unquestioned, but for a predominately American audience at Coachella, the question on many people’s lips before the festival was “who are The Stone Roses?”
That question was answered quite emphatically in the Led-Zeppelin-length live rendition of ‘Fools Gold’ near the beginning of their set. Magically mixing classic rock riffs with the groove and sensibilities of late 80’s rave culture, the foursome showed off their technical wizardry and interplay to an intrigued crowd. Mononym maestros Mani and Reni kept the loose-limbed rhythm section in check on bass and drums respectively, allowing John Squire to concoct a seemingly endless supply of guitar licks, frequently indulging in marathon solos and improvisations. Ian Brown’s vocals were mostly unremarkable and buried low in the swirling vortex of sound, but the anthemic ‘She Bangs The Drums’ and ‘Waterfall’ were well-received (the latter being followed by ‘Don’t Stop’, a trippy reversal of the song, complete with impressive attempts at live backmasking). A mesmerising drum solo from Reni added to the psychedelic atmosphere, before the antagonistic ‘I Am The Resurrection’ triumphantly closed out their set. Whilst it may have been a little risky to place the Roses at the top of the bill, their musicianship made up for their relative obscurity.
Over in the Mojave, Foals’ groove-orientated sound had locked their fans in, and cuts from the indie rockers’ latest crossover success in the States, Holy Fire, showed a sublime, soulful and funky band finally hitting top gear. They were equally at ease with spacey epics such as ‘Spanish Sahara’ and ‘Late Night’, or the fiery bombast of new hit single ‘Inhaler’ (where Yannis Philippakis’ yelp turned into an awe-inspiring howl). The lead singer and guitarist had a lot of fun on stage, encouraging those assembled to “have a nice weekend, and don’t act too…sane”, as well as diving into the crowd, surfing above the faithful with trusty guitar in hand.
The task of closing off the eventful first day was given to Britpop barons Blur, whose set on the main Coachella Stage traversed the band’s discography, from jaunty ‘Parklife’ (from the 1994 album of the same name, with a cameo spoken word appearance by actor Paul Daniels) to the soulful ‘Tender’ (from 1999’s 13). Backed by a three-piece horn section and extra vocalists, the sound was suitably lush, and at times, the mood dipped into melancholia and experimentation (‘This Is A Low’, ‘Caramel’). Blur achieved moderate success Stateside in the 90’s, unlike fellow headliners The Stone Roses, and closing their set with the lo-fi mega-hit ‘Song 2’ was a smart choice, shaking the somewhat sleepy crowd awake after a string of quieter tracks.
Past 1am, the official festivities wind down in the musical mecca of Coachella, leaving festival-goers to either continue the party on their own in the massive campgrounds, or get some much-needed rest and sleep. With two full days left to spend in this glittering oasis, choosing the latter was a no-brainer.