Coachella 2009 Complete Review
The economy has worked its Darwinian effect on the global festival scene. Gatherings across Europe and the US are being postponed, cancelled or reconfigured. The invisible hand of the marketplace has seemingly touched Coachella in only subtle ways. As the lead festival of the season, Coachella is a bellwether. Layaway plans let attendees smooth payments over time (while garnering steady interest for Goldenvoice, the festival's promoter).
This year’s attendees noticed a clever water refill program as a worthy countermeasure to the pernicious mountains of plastic water bottles clogging the globe.
The variety of food on offer was fresh and generally reasonably priced. The art installations were clever as always. Many punters (like me) were enthralled by Ristow's 'Hand of Man.' A huge iron claw would lift automobile carcasses, which the operators dropped with a satisfying thud.
The music line-up was as diverse as always. Most acts performing after 5.30pm were best-received, which has me pondering the effect of ambient temperature on the music enjoyment factor. In fact, I remain curious why in recent memory no pure big-name reggae act has been booked for a late afternoon slot. The heat may have been the reason Goldenvoice moved Coachella a week earlier this year.
Much of the attraction of attending a festival is coordinating your optimum logistics. Invariably, one wishes to make personal tweaks to the lineup grid. But a fully customizable grid is only available to the promoter, and even the promoter has artist booking agent agendas with which to contend.
All three days of Coachella seemed well-attended, but not overly clogged. Perhaps the refined layout and traffic patterns contributed to the noticeably easier movement. Or perhaps a slight drop in attendance. Regardless, a splendid time was had by all.
Here are our three day highlights.
The Hold Steady – Craig Finn takes more than a page from Ian Hunter’s talk singing style. Finn looks and acts like an accountant out on a bender. He and Tad Kubler traded blistering Gibson guitar solos. The Brooklyn band has occasionally shared a stage w/ Springsteen, who was down the road in concert for the prior two nights. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay was attired in a snappy disco button down suit and beret and showed off some fancy footwork. The setlist was well modulated, not all songs were full bore anthems.
M. Ward – his liquid guitar figures suffered (at no fault of his own) from sonic bleed coming over from The Black Keys. Ward’s aural textuers evoked Daniel Lanois, a fine blend of dusky Louisiana and Southern Gothic imagery. He kicked his band into a higher gear toward the end of the set.
Black Keys – the duo of Patrick Carney and Dan Auerbach (no relation) looked tiny on the main stage at Sunset. But that most ultimate stripped down drums and guitar pairing was a gutbucket blues rock foray.
Conor Oberst – best sound so far, crisp acoustic guitars against solid bass. Nebraska's finest were excited to debut a few tracks from their next album, due in a few weeks.
Franz Ferdinand – the first media darlings of the weekend. The sun was setting, the lighting kicked into gear and most importantly the Glaswegians were commanding. Chiming, slashing and guitars with a steady rhythm section.
Leonard Cohen – easily the best dressed band of the weekend. Fedoras, dark suits and a Continental panache. The fit 74 year old Cohen released his first album 42 years ago. His rich baritone was counterbalanced by the buttery harmonies of his female backup trio. The gently swelling B3 organ provided washes underneath the Spanish guitars, bouzouki and reeds. The crowd was suitably reverent, and included the more modestly attired Franz from The Hold Steady standing next to us. Cohen tipped his chapeau to the band after each song, and started most songs by dropping to one knee for the opening lyrics. The best songs were 'Bird On a Wire,' Everybody Knows' and 'I'm Your Man.'
Silversun Pickups – this wonderfully-named LA band are poster children for lovers of the fuzzy electric guitar.
Morrissey – unsure why we hustled over to see the dour Brit. He did not seem to synch with his band, and became unsettled when the smell of barbecue wafted his way. "I smell burning flesh. I hope it is human." The vegetarian became even more morose as his set progressed, but we gave it a miss.
Paul McCartney – another vegetarian Brit followed, but was more ebullient. He delighted the legions of folks wearing Beatles T-shirts, of all ages. His generous set list spanned many decades, from an early track he heard as a lad in Liverpool ('Yaketty Yak') through inevitable Beatles classics ('Drive My Car,’ 'Blackbird,' 'Long and Winding Road'), solo/Wings hits ('Jet,' 'Live and Let Die') and a couple tracks from his latest Fireman alter ego release. He paid tribute to John ('Here Today'), to George ('Something') and to Linda ('My Love') who died exactly eleven years ago in the Arizona desert. His voice was in fine form, not hesitating to reach for the high notes. He moved smoothly from his classic Hoffner bass to electric and then acoustic guitar. He rounded out the show with a handful of Beatles choice cuts, including 'Birthday' apparently chosen just for me. The show lasted nearly three hours. It's obviously not the money that motivates McCartney to perform at this point. That he can and does, is impressive.
Bajofundo – led by the irrepressible and double Oscar winning Gustavo Santaolalla, this Argentinean collective had the unenviable task of competing with Macca's time slot. Nonetheless, the tango groove kept the devoted crowd enthralled. I spoke with Santaolalla earlier in the week, and he was enthusiastic about playing in the desert. His soundtrack work (which includes “Motorcycle Diaries” and the stunning pair of Oscars for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Babel”) is constantly evolving, although Kerouac’s “On The Road” is a project on hiatus. One thing that remains the same, contrary to film tradition, the director has Santaolalla compose BEFORE the film is shot. Santaolalla has produced over 100 records, garnering ten Latin Grammys along the way. He was involved in Café de los Maestros, an amalgam analogous to Buena Vista Social Club. Bajofundo’s new album is called Mar Dulce. Although neither Nelly nor Elvis Costello (guests on the new album) were to be seen at Coachella, Santaolalla had described how he had brought Costello into the project. “Certain folks like Costello, Tom Waits, Marianne Faithfull, are unaware of the sensibility they possess, which connects with the tango world.” Santaolalla has pointed out that “America is not a country, but a continent – North, South, Central and Latin is in the DNA of all three.”
Thanks to the fine folks at Anthem, we were able to chill Entourage-stylee by a lake and pool during the crushing heat of mid-day. Various hardbodies and fashionistas were festooned with tasty togs from Reef. Various celebs were spotted, appropriately including Adrian Grenier. But soon we were back on the Polo Grounds fro more live music.
Drive By Truckers – a nice twangy sound, relishing in a white trash, whiskey and double wide haze. Nice steel guitar work.
Blitzen Trapper – more shade in the Gobi Tent, and the basic Americana sound worked for the sun-drenched. Eric Earley’s Dylanesque harmonica covered terrain traversed by Crazy Horse.
Amanda Palmer – gathered 19 of her favorite followers undoubtedly via Twitter. They marched out to the recorded power chords of 'Also Sprach Zarathustra' then turned on cue for us to see written 'Amanda Fucking Palmer' across their backs, as she jumped up on her piano bench. Arms outstretched, making the most of her tight corset, she bade the punters farewell and rolled through her solo set. A few tracks featured a cellist, legs also akimbo.
Glasvegas – left a lot fans disappointed by cancelling due to lead singer James Allan's fever.
Tinariwen – if Leonard Cohen was the best dressed, this septet was the most smartly dressed. Attired in traditional Malian garb, their head scarves were well-suited as the hot Coachella sun made its final Saturday appearance. The electric grooves over the exotic beats had the audience swaying. I will look for these guys again.
TV On The Radio – we only caught the tail end of their set, but the horn drenched sound was thick with energy.
Fleet Foxes – their airy acapella harmonies worked well as the sun was setting; the air and surrounding stages were still for the first couple songs.
Thievery Corporation – a fonky potpurri of dub, sitar and horns with scratching DJs had the Main Stage audience throbbing. The deep reggae bass was the bedrock for a solid set. The most shapely of the three female lead singers did a brave face down crowd surf, and then the band broke into 'The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,' a track they co-wrote with David Byrne. Perry (Lollapooza/Jane's Addiction) Ferrell tried to add compelling vocals, but seemed a bit lost. Thievery Corporation’s bass player did not attend the John Entwistle School; he never stopped moving. In fact, as their set ended he tossed his bass guitar into the air letting it clatter to the ground, definitely abandoning any Entwistle curriculum. Thievery Corporation was the best of Saturday. They should appear later in the lineup; they deserve it.
M.I.A – I don't quite get it. She should appear earlier on a smaller stage. She yelps her vocals while the only other 'performer' on stage fiddles with her laptop.
Jenny Lewis – as lead singer of Rilo Kiley, she delivers an easily digestible sound, buttressed by a nice steel guitar. Think middle period Ronstadt and pre-Mac Stevie Nicks.
The Killers – the proliferation of Joy Division T-shirts paralleled Friday night's headliner. Most of those folks undoubtedly saw 'Control' (the phenomenal Phil Jonaou film about Joy Division), which acknowledged The Killers’ lead singer Brandon Flowers. The Vegas-based band has shifted a lot of units, has garnered some recognition from Coldplay and U2 and cut a charity single with Elton John. But give these guys a year or two; not quite sure they yet have the chops to headline.
Peter Bjorn and John – these Scandinavians did not let the late afternoon heat cool their energy. Spurred by several Swedish flags being waved by fellow countrymen, the darlings of KCRW acquitted themselves with aplomb.
Yeah Yeah Yeahs – were the first to enjoy a cooler Main Stage. Although the sound mix was awesome, not enough of their music grabbed me.
X – we arrived just in time for their seminal 'Los Angeles.' I always loved the lyric 'she gets confused / flying over the dateline.' Propelled by DJ Bonebrake's powerful drum work, Billy Zoom’s flashy fretwork, Exene and John Doe delivered … forcefully, tautly and convincingly. We hated to leave before X finished their set, but in one of the toughest scheduling conflicts, we needed to cut across to see…
Paul Weller – watching the day turn to night, the former mod commented on the blazing setting sun between a solid set of tracks across his career. 'Eton Rifles' and 'Town Called Malice' (the latter with guest Johnny Marr) appeased the myriad Jam fans. 'Wild Wood' was a choice cut from his middle solo period, and he introduced a few new songs. Weller's silvery hair was matted by the end of his energetic set, and it seemed he genuinely wanted to play longer.
My Bloody Valentine – notorious for turning it up past 11, mixed the vocals low and had the monopoly on sound for most of their set. All other stages were strangely empty but for…
Christopher Lawrence – in the distant Sahara tent he powered up his DJ set for an ecstatic crowd. The six man light show was coordinated from back of the house. One of the technicians had Phil Spector's mug shot on his laptop rig; old Phil is heading to the big house and will be doing a far more stripped down style of production…if any. (Tom Cruise now has an ending for his biopic of the gun-toting genius).
The Cure – the festival closer kept us waiting a good 30 minutes past their posted start time. Once the quartet took the stage, their morose and petulant demeanor fit their dirge-like opening numbers. Bass player Simon Gallup seemed to be the band member most interested in performing, parrying about while Robert Smith and Porl Thompson traded guitar chores. Impressively, Smith's vocals have not aged since the heyday of 'Love Cats' on KCRW two decades ago. Also essentially unchanged are his mascara, lipstick and impossibly teased hair. The forlorn 'Pictures Of You' kicked things up a notch half an hour into the set, but did not save the set. The Cure headlined Coachella five years ago, and I guess everyone loved them enough then for the promoters to bring them back for another round.
As measured by exuberance of the crowd, the best headliner was the one who has logged far far in excess of 10,000 hours honing his craft: a bass player from Liverpool.