- Original publication date: 17 June 2013
From the 19th to 21st of April 2013, I attended the Coachella Music Festival in Indio, California, USA. This is Part 3 in a series of 5 articles, focusing on the second day of the festival. All photos are my own.
Friday had mostly been a roller-coaster ride of rock, taking corners with reckless abandon (Palma Violets’ beastly bash in the Mojave, complete with hoots and hollers), or with long climbs and mammoth drops (The Stone Roses’ trance-inducing nostalgia trip on the Coachella).
But as the second day of Coachella dawned, an exploration into more experimental territory would be undertaken, populated with dance rock, indie pop, acoustic folk, and pop rock. The festival offers a wide variety of exotic locales to visit, but one soon realises that as a dedicated fan, your schedule has been booked in advance, and might offer little leeway to venture into unknown lands.
The rise in popularity of EDM (electronic dance music) in recent years has highlighted this divide, or opportunity, depending on which way you look at it. Although Coachella was a forerunner in catering for that bulk of genres, those stages and tents are now sizeably populated and a festival unto themselves, with the capital to be found in the monolithic Sahara Tent, home to a raging party with high production values from noon till midnight. Elsewhere, the enclosed Yuma Tent and Heineken Dome offered more EDM excitement, whilst the DO Lab, an outdoor arrangement of tall multi-coloured, Dr Seussian tents around a central dance floor, doubled up as a shady retreat from the daytime desert haze.
Coachella offers the same line-up for both weekends, but occasionally an artist pulls out from the second installment. One such disappointment was the highly-anticipated Biffy Clyro; the left-field lunatics of alternative rock who have slowly earned a stadium-sized reputation over the past five to six years on the other side of the Atlantic. After a ragged appearance on Weekend 1, the band bowed out from the rest of their US tour, with lead singer and guitarist Simon Neil suffering severe respiratory problems brought on from the relentless promotion of their first UK Number One album, Opposites.
This unfortunate loss to the Saturday afternoon line-up meant that there was an opportunity to discover some other highly-recommended acts, starting with singer-songwriter Ben Howard’s laidback acoustic folk at the Outdoor Theatre. With much of the crowd seated or reclined on the grass, Howard’s troupe flitted through his soothing repertoire, with highlights including ‘Old Pine’ and ‘The Wolves’.
Moving to the Mojave, the alluring indie pop of Bat For Lashes melded tribal rhythms ('Horses In The Sun') with a synthpop aesthetic ('Daniel'). Natasha Khan (real name) gave an impressive performance overall; seductively sashaying across the stage in time to the jittery beats, her powerful voice evoking a young Kate Bush on the exquisite 'What’s A Girl To Do?'. After the stunning ballad 'Laura', Khan acknowledged the blistering heat (“I want some of that spray, it’s bloody hot”), but pushed on to the most intriguing song of her set. ‘The Haunted Man’ (the title song of her highly-acclaimed 2012 album) saw her make use of an old transistor radio as an instrument, with her triumphantly holding it up to the mic at the climax of the song.
A voyage to the main Coachella Stage via one of the eight food vendor areas is a gastronomic adventure in itself. With a total of sixty vendors plying their trade at the festival, there is an array of international options, including Mexican, Greek, Korean, and Italian (it’s considered a festival right-of-passage to have at least one gigantic slice from Spicy Pie Pizza). Portable outlets of some well-established Los Angeles eateries also find their way into the Coachella melting pot. Feeling fed and well-nourished, it was now possible to make it through the marathon run of the last four acts of the day at the festival’s sprawling focal point.
First up was the electronica enchantment of Hot Chip, whose energetic, quirky, and danceable set focused heavily on their latest album (2012’s In Our Heads) and creating beat-driven improvisations of their hits. The rave atmosphere brimmed with excitement; the sweet ode to monogamy ‘One Life Stand’ being spiced up with live steel drums, the heavy slabs of bass and galloping drum line on ‘Over And Over’, as well as the staggering synthesizer solo on the call-to-arms ‘Ready For The Floor’. The band’s slinky sound even moved into ballad terrain (‘Look At Where We Are’), but never lapsed into laziness, as evidenced by the beautifully programmed live synth-and-drum combination on set-closer ‘I Feel Better’.
The Postal Service was in business next – an ostensibly imaginary band that only recently regrouped for the tenth anniversary of their one and only debut album Give Up. Despite the irony of that nomenclature, the group (featuring Death Cab For Cutie’s vocalist Ben Gibbard) were well-received and remembered, as their lone album a decade ago was a critical and commercial success.
Their forward-thinking, twinkly new-wave melodies have aged well, triggering crowd sing-alongs (such as on set-closer ‘Brand New Colony’) as Gibbard’s lead vocals were given a delicate backing by the redheaded Jenny Lewis of fellow indie poppers Rilo Kiley. Interpreting these songs live led to some interesting moves onstage, as Gibbard dashed across to a drum set to give the magical soundscapes of ‘We Will Become Silhouettes’ some added percussion. Soaring magnum opus ‘Such Great Heights’ (the soundtrack to many a commercial or television series in the intervening years) was also given a great rendition for the crowd, whose enthusiasm for the group had clearly not waned over time.
Captivating and cool, The xx’s hauntingly beautiful indie pop was a bold choice for the main Coachella Stage, something which guitarist and singer Romy Madley Croft confessed to (“Three years ago, we were at the Outdoor Theatre next door. We could never have dreamed of being here”). For a group that trades on hushed, intimate confessions between lovers, it was a rare peek behind the veil. Croft’s spiralling guitar lines mesh fluidly with Oliver Sim’s throbbing bass grooves, whilst sonic architect Jamie xx completes the mysterious trio, whose subtle and sparse stage setup echoes their mellow choice of sound.
Opening with the woozy ‘Try’, the mood shifted effortlessly between melancholic (the propulsive ‘Crystalised’) and romantic (the steel-drum-inflected ‘Reunion’). The spectral duets between Croft and Sim were gorgeous to behold, whether it was their serpentine sighs or their forehead-to-forehead, heart-to-heart instrumental passages. Fan-favourites ‘VCR’, ‘Intro’, and ‘Islands’ highlighted the group’s taut chemistry, and the undulating, danceable numbers from their recent album Coexist hinted at their R&B roots. Surprisingly, they closed off their emotive set with the minimalist (even by their standards) ‘Angels’. Not surprisingly, the crowd sang along, echoing Croft’s every word. The xx’s claim for the main stage had been confidently validated.
The hot topic of conversation over the course of Weekend 2 was “do you think Daft Punk will show up?”. The revered French DJ duo had released a teaser trailer the previous weekend to rapturous response, apparently causing a sudden mass exodus to its screening at the main stage. For those wishing for that cameo appearance, their best hope seemed to be with Saturday headliners, fellow Frenchmen Phoenix. The eclectic pop rockers had their own trick up their sleeve on Weekend 1, bringing R&B superstar R Kelly to the stage to blend his own ‘Ignition (Remix)’ with their hit single ‘1901’, but no such star-studded sideshows were in order second time around.
They did, however, assuredly and earnestly cement their headliner status, jubilantly opening and closing the set with their irresistible new single ‘Entertainment’. The upcoming Bankrupt! was to be released the following Monday, and the band took the opportunity to reveal a plethora of new material, showcasing their style evolution from the laidback and endearing indie rockers of 2000’s United and 2004’s Alphabetical, to the stadium-sized synth scientists of their breakout success, 2009’s Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix.
In addition to the crowd-pleasing past hits ‘Liztomania’ and ‘1901’, hot-off-the-press new tracks that were revealed included the bouncy ‘Don’t’, the new-wave niceties of ‘Trying To Be Cool’, and the expansive electrohaze of ‘Chloroform’. An exquisite stage setup, an acoustic rendition of ‘Countdown (Sick For The Big Sun)’, and a lengthy remix of two instrumental tracks (‘Love Like A Sunset’ and ‘Bankrupt!’) all rounded off an impressive and immersive extravaganza. But lead singer Thomas Mars was not finished just yet: on the reprise of the euphoric ‘Entertainment’, he launched into the crowd, surfing his way towards a lighting rig far from the stage. Clambering up the scaffolding, Mars then surveyed his faithful flock, and knew that it was a job well done.
Nowadays, big-name festivals such as Coachella are not just about the music; it’s about the experience. In a matter of days, places like the Empire Polo Club are transformed into mini-communities, which the regular concert-going experience would struggle to match in scope or variety. Whether you exalt the excellence of EDM, profess your passion for pop & rock, or just follow the crowd, you come to a festival seeking to be entertained.
Each time Thomas Mars leaped into that chorus, singing the high falsetto of “Entertainment, show them what you do to me”, thousands of exuberant voices didn’t realise that they were providing the evidence.