Like all Coachellas, and perhaps all music festivals, and, uh, buffets, your experience is all about your choices, and learning to live with those choices (and the inevitable sacrifices) plays a big part in your enjoyment. Thus, I'm trying my best to come to terms with the fact that, as predicted, we didn't make it to the festival in time for the slew of acts scheduled for early Sunday afternoon. Mexican Institute of Sound, The Knux, No Age, Vivian Girls, Friendly Fires, you have my apologies, and my promise to come see you soon. We managed to drag ourselves over by about 3:00 pm, which isn't bad, and it was just in time to catch the tail end of Toronto punk band Fucked Up, whose most recent album was one of the critical faves of last year. As we enter the tent, they're doing a Black Flag cover, and I spot our friend Anthony, who's staying with us (and happens to front up-and-coming hardcore band Ceremony), way down in the pit. Then I realize he's holding a microphone and singing along with the band. Holy crap! I find out later he knows the guys in Fucked Up, and he and No Age frontman Randy Randall happened to be at the right place to join in for the final number. It's a punk rock summit! We weren't fast enough to get a picture, but I promise you it really happened.
In the tent next door, the scene could not be more different. Frenchman Sebastien Tellier is, well, acting just about as French as possible, wearing white pants and a floppy hat as his band plays mellow electropop. "And now, a song about my bisexuality," he announces in a thick accent, "you know, when, uhhh…" and trails off. When what, exactly? Either way (ahem), his tunes are groovy and smooth, but soon the ADD kicks in and we're off to the next act.
On the main stage, Lupe Fiasco has filled every available space with musicians, and they launch into a funky version of "Kick, Push." The venue is still mercifully empty--I imagine many people had the same parking lot nightmare we did the night before--but the Chicago rapper manages to bring the crowd to their feet. "Go Gadget Flow" gets a squealing guitar solo, and the drummer adds double-time snare taps to emphasize the rapid-fire lyrics. "Superstar" gets a huge cheer, and as we walk back across the venue, people of all stripes are utilizing the open space to get their dance on, with varying degrees of success.
We're heading for the side stage and Swedish singer Lykke Li. She happens to resemble a significant percentage of the fashion-conscious LA types in attendance, dressed in a short, flowy black dress and chunky silver jewelry. She's taking the opposite approach from Lupe Fiasco and going minimal, instrumentation-wise, but people are dancing around just as much. At one point, all we hear are her delicate vocals, a few light synth chords, and a percussionist tapping a tom-tom, but everybody's dancing and clapping along. She launches into a cover of Lil Wayne's ubiquitous "A Milli," and everyone goes nuts, but she stops after a minute. Ah, Lil Wayne.
I take the post-Lykke 25-minute break to make an ambitious run through the far tents. K'naan has a capacity crowd in the smallest tent, and he's doing a Latin-inflected number that has everyone dancing along; in the next tent, what the schedule says is the Brian Jonestown Massacre are banging a snare drum for a group of about 50 people. I'm heading for German minimal techno duo M.A.N.D.Y. in the dance tent, and I arrive just in time for "Body Language," whose quirky melody became an unlikely hit. The sound is warm and massive, loud enough to wrap around you like a blanket, but clean enough that every subtle effect comes through loud and clear. It's over all too soon, and I scamper back to the side stage for Antony and the Johnsons.
Antony emerges in a scrappy white blouse thing, with long white ribbons dangling from his sleeves down to the floor, and it looks both elegant and kind of straitjackety. "We're going to do something a little different today," he says, and the setup has me intrigued: there's a guy behind a bank of keyboards, a violinist and a cellist, and Antony himself has a little MacBook on a table next to him. He fiddles with it and out comes radically reworked "Where Is My Power," with sputtering, bleepy electronics taking the place of the traditional instrumentation. He announces that he worked on the new tracks with Andy Butler of Hercules and Love Affair, to try to give the afternoon crowd something "spicy," and it's a rousing success, a surprisingly perfect counterpoint to his voice, intriguingly Bjork-like in its machine/organic contrast. At one point, there's a sound problem, and an unpleasant buzzing starts emanating from the speakers like an alarm, causing everyone on stage to look freaked out, but they press on, and when it goes away, the song is just about to step up to a 4/4 beat. Antony releases the full power of his vocal chords for a single repeated phrase, and it's a magical moment, where a technical problem actually added to the drama of the song.
I start to feel like I might be falling in love with Antony, but suddenly, 20 minutes early, he says goodbye and they leave the stage. Oh well. At least it gives us a little break before punk rock legends X, who kick off an apparently all-request set with "You're Phone's Off the Hook, But You're Not." How great are X? The tent is only about 2/3 full, but there's an ecstatic reaction. Watching them, it strikes me that I can't think of another band I've seen this weekend whose onstage lineup consisted of a bassist, guitarist, drummer and singer. No DJ, keyboardist, laptop, video projections, glowing neon clothing trim, or horn section? How novel! Maybe they'll start a trend.
Intrepid photographer Kristi can't be drawn away, but the rest of us really want to catch the Yeah Yeah Yeahs on the main stage. The sun's going down, and the place has suddenly become packed, front to back, and the VIP corral is jammed from the taquito stand to the $11 cocktail bar. Everybody wants to see the New York trio, and I guess the Yeahs want to look back at us, since their stage backdrop is dominated by a gigantic scary googly eye. Karen O is wearing what appears to be a series of gold mirrors, because, as we all agree, she's the coolest woman on the planet. New tracks like "Zero" and "Heads Will Roll" come off great, enhanced by a bigger guitar sound, but oddly, "Maps" seems to fall a little flat. Either way, it's a spirited set at a tough time of day.
Earlier, we had considered a quick run to catch Late of the Pier all the way over at the dance tent, but that just isn't happening: I need to eat some taquitos, and My Bloody Valentine is up next on the main stage. I'd wondered how their sound would feel in the great outdoors, but I needn't have worried, as "I Only Said" opens their set with a blast of rich, full sound. We scramble to get a good spot, which turns out to be pretty easy, as things have kind of cleared out, but people do not know what they're missing. The band runs through perfectly-executed tracks from their two almost 20-year-old albums, and while seeing them in close-up on the jumbotrons is a revelation, they couldn't be goofier-looking: head honcho Kevin Shields is raggedy and shambolic with an expression that says he is utterly incapable of having a good time, while guitarist and singer Bilinda Butcher has a ridiculously conservative hairdo, red dress and diamond earrings, and approaches the microphone with a beatific look on her face as if she's singing a Disney lullaby. She's really creeping me out, actually: she kind of looks like your human resources manager who brings you cookies but it turns out was secretly murdering her lovers and chopping them up in the basement.
But back to the matter at hand: the sound, oh, the sound. The Coachella festival is rightly commended by artists and concertgoers alike for quality setups, and My Bloody Valentine are making the most of it. Their massive, distorted noise is coming across as cleanly as possible, if that makes any sense. Whatever, it's ecstatic and glorious, and as they roll through the chords of "Soon," I snap out of my reverie long enough to notice there really aren't that many people around, especially considering the Cure are coming up next. I guess that despite the fact that this band changed music forever, they're kind of like the random guy who holds the world land speed record or deepest submarine dive: they've accomplished this enormous, crazy thing and nobody really knows about it. Or maybe the noise is just too much for most people, it occurs to me, as they start up "You Made Me Realize," the legendary song whose middle section consists of the band making the noise of a thousand jet engines for an indeterminate length of time. They hit this part right around 8:52 p.m., and the gargantuan wall of noise washes over us like a tsunami, and all you can do is hold your breath. It goes on, for minute after minute. At one point I hear a group of guys behind me start to yell "aaahhh," as if they decided to join in with the cacophony, but when I turn around, there's nobody there; my ears are starting to play tricks on me as the vibrating sound rises and falls. Finally, at 9:08, they return to the song's lilting chords after at least 16 minutes of astonishing sound, finishing to applause that sounds as dumbfounded as it is appreciative. But me, I feel giddy. One of my friends walks up from his spot a little closer up and says, "Okay, I think I just have to die now, that's it," and I know what he means.
I had plans to try and catch a little Public Enemy on the side stage, but we're a bit stunned, and we stagger back to the VIP corral to wait for The Cure. After a welcome break, kinder, gentler ocean wave sounds wash softly from the speakers, and Robert Smith steps out, his hair longer and droopier than I remember it. They ease us into their set with "Underneath the Stars," appropriately enough, whose slow, minor chords are comfortingly familiar. They're approaching this exactly right: start with the slow, moody stuff, because your opener just pummeled everyone into oblivion. The current incarnation of the Cure is missing a keyboardist, but this actually makes their sound intriguingly straightforward, with some synth lines covered by guitars and others gone entirely. For instance, "Prayers For Rain" has all its swirling glory intact, while "Love Song's" absent melodies aren't really missed. Good old Bob still sounds great, and we wonder how his voice could maintain that high, plaintive quality after all these years. Lots of tea and honey?
As good as the Cure sound, we don't want to take any chances leaving the parking lot with everybody else, and we're also worn out from three days of this. It's been an odd but satisfying Coachella overall, impressively diverse in some ways, oddly conservative in others. I mean, think about it: Paul McCartney shared a bill with Buraka Som Sistema. Kudos to organizers Goldenvoice, who have everything pretty much figured out by now (except how to get 50,000 cars out of a parking lot with a one-lane exit). Moving the festival one week earlier also meant the heat was generally a step down from the searing blast we'd experienced in past years. Now all we need is some high speed rail to get us from Northern to Southern California, and we'll be set.
Tune in tomorrow for a photo essay featuring more highlights of the festival, and many thanks to intrepid photographer Kristi Highum for her fearless dives into photo pits and snaps of goofily-dressed attendees.