File this statement under “Duh”: It is impossible to see everything at Coachella.
While I wouldn’t describe myself as a seasoned Coachella veteran, I felt like I had the festival at least kinda wired. Because I eschew the celebrity-soaked mayhem of Weekend 1, I had the luxury of reading a couple online reviews and picking M.’s brain before setting foot on the hot, dusty polo fields. I’d somewhat mapped out my schedule for the three days of Weekend 2, with a few open spots reserved for pool time, margaritas at the “secret” cantina, watching the sunset, sleeping.
Happily, the reality of Coachella blew my tidy schedule to bits.
While I had a long list of people to see, there were two bands on my short list for Saturday evening that were non-negotiable: Courtney Barnett and the Arcs. And then, through a series of fortunate incidents, I found myself in the VIP section of the Heineken House, swilling ice cold beer and riffing along with Warren G, one of the original LBC rappers. Was I going to leave to see my favorite Aussie coffee house songwriter or Dan Auerbach’s critically acclaimed side project? Hells no.
That’s how Coachella is for me: a string of choose-your-own adventures through a maze of music and art. I start out in one spot, maybe seeing a “buzz” band I’ve been meaning to see, and then something clicks inside and I abrubtly change course, following an unexplainable impulse. Maybe I want a Vietnamese coffee popsicle from Front Porch, and then the sound of a band from a side tent beckons me like a siren song. Or I overhear someone mention the tiny dance party going on at Despacio, and suddenly, that’s where my feet want to go. I follow it. There’s nowhere to be, no agenda, nothing holding me back. One of my favorite parts of the festival happens at night, long after we’ve all stumbled home, when we sit around the firepit or Jacuzzi and recount the bands we saw and the experiences we had. And even though we all walk through the gates together in the early afternoon, the only way to see what YOU want to see is to leave your friends and meet up later. Otherwise, as M. says (and I’m paraphrasing here), you’re fucked and your Coachella is ruined.
I saw 39 acts in 3 days. I stuck around for a couple of full sets, and for some acts I only caught a song or two (or, in the case of the 1975, a few verses, enough to reassure me that the band was real and not just dandy robots formulated by teen-girl-obsession algorithms). I won’t recount each experience, but here is a smattering of highlights:
LCD Soundsystem – Although M. cautioned that LCD wasn’t a good band to see live, I slipped into the crowd to the left of the stage and allowed the music to swallow me whole. And I LOVED it. My husband had a big LCD obsession in the early 2000s, but I wasn’t on board yet. It sounded too Talking Heads version 2.1, too dancey, too much like music I knew from the New Wave 80s. But now, in 2016, a decade after their "heyday,” and 5 years after their “farewell” show, I got it. LCD’s sound somehow feels fresh and relevant. Like a musical Willy Loman, James Murphy’s everyman vocals and lyrics affected me where I live now, in the midsection of my life. For me, in a twist of irony, the song “Losing My Edge” felt the edgiest of all, an improvised piece of sonic performance art enhanced by the backing vocals of Jehnny Beth (of Savages). They rounded out their 2-hour headlining set with well-placed covers from music lovers’ recently fallen heroes, Prince’s “Controversy” and David Bowie’s “Heroes,” but the evening truly belonged to the joyful, anxious indie dance-punk of LCD. And, as James Murphy would sing, “I was there.” Amen.
Sia – Hands down, Sia was the most intriguing act of the weekend. M.’s post about the power of her performance says it all, but it was deeply affecting to see an artist lay her feelings bare WITHOUT showing her face, boobs, ass, and lame dance choreography. Yes, there was plenty of dancing, but it felt incredibly intimate, the dancers portraying various sides of Sia’s personality: neurotic, good girl, angry troll, warrior, hysteric, numbed-out party girl. And while vocally Sia is a soulmate to Rihanna’s rich Bahamian tone, Sia brings an unavoidable depth and complexity to her own lyrics (as in the song “Diamonds”). You can’t escape her lens, and you can’t help but hear your own struggles in her words. An hour-long set with Sia was all it took to convert me into a Sia-obsessed fan.
Moon Taxi – It’s hard to drag yourself away from a lively poolside scene and A/C to see the first show on Coachella’s main stage, but M. insisted that I check out Moon Taxi. My kids have had “Morocco” on playlists for a few years, so I was familiar with them, but their live show blew me away. Thick, rumbling drums and throbbing guitars… it felt much deeper than most indie/prog rock bands dare to be. Blurred Culture writer Derrick Lee made an apt vocal comparison between Moon Taxi’s frontman Trevor Terndrup and Kings of Leon’s Caleb Followill. It’s a similarity that works for me: raspy and commanding, without a hint of menace. Plus, with their cover of Rage Against the Machine’s “Sleep Now in the Fire,” I felt they broke away from the pack of pop-rockers, carefully aligning themselves with the revolutionary big guns of LA garage punk. It was a gutsy move, and one that paid off. It wasn’t until I got home on Monday that I realized they didn’t even play “Morocco.” They didn’t need to.
Interesting African/French bands (Mbongwana Star, St. Germain) – Yes, I may have referred to Mbongwana Star as “Bongwater Star” all weekend, but it was 100% worth the effort to hustle my ass through security to experience these Congalese musicians pounding out African beats rooted in rumba and fiery energy. A few of the musicians were in wheelchairs, which I guess I didn’t notice until much later in the set; that, and the fact that they were singing and speaking in French, didn’t seem to matter much in the face of their infectious beat. Later on, I caught most of St. Germain’s exquisite set. With enough elegance and booty-shaking rhythm to fill the tent, St. Germain reminded me why French jazz-house isn’t just for tragically rich sophisticates. It’s for all of us, even the dirty Coachella hippies.
Alvvays – My 6th grader LOVES Alvvays, a dreamy pop indie band from Nova Scotia, Canada. An early fan (my kid covered “Archie, Marry Me” in her band last spring), she urged me to catch them at last year’s FYF in Los Angeles, where I thought they were sweet and good enough, perfect for an early festival set. But practice and performing makes perfect, and their set at Coachella showed off the fruits of a long tour for a new band. Their sound was spot-on, each song delivered with appropriate emotion and buckets of talent. Lead singer Molly Rankin’s appearance and cool factor recalls a young Debbie Harry somehow – a resemblance that’s been noted by several media outlets – but it’s clear that she’s a team player, hitting her stride musically alongside her bandmates, which makes me excited to watch how Alvvays will grow in the next few years.
Lush – Another of my husband’s faves from the 90s. I ducked into the tent to see what the buzz was about, to escape the afternoon heat and dust, and to pay my respects since the band had cancelled Weekend 1 (due to visa issues). The sound was as (shocking) lush as I’d hoped, and lead singer Miki Berenyi was an ambient shoe-gazer’s answer to Chrissy Hynde, full of strong female energy and confidence. Of the entire set – a smorgasbord of the band’s textured repertoire which included the dreamy, driving guitars of “De-Luxe” and the Britpop sensation “Ladykillers” – my favorite song was the beautiful new track “Out of Control.” Surprised? Me too, and that’s why I love Coachella’s crazy reunion sets. You never know what kind of magic might spin together… or spin apart. (Eh, Guns N Roses? You sounded great, but there’s nothing new to add to the conversation that wasn’t said in the late 80s.) Here's a great review of their show at the Roxy in late April.
Goldroom – Electronica done right in the Gobi tent. Led by electronic musician Josh Legg, Goldroom drew a happy dance crowd. Singer Nikki Segal, dressed in a flowing, all-white pantsuit, was a disco dream who kept the energy and good vibes flowing for the entire, blissful set.
The Kills – Allison Mossheart is a badass. She commands the stage with grit and glory, a fitting centerpiece for early afternoon on the Outdoor Stage, when it’s not quite sunset and there’s still no escaping the desert sun. With Allison onstage, though, you can’t escape anything. You can’t leave. Her voice draws you in, urgently, and even with her eyes closed, hair whipped across her face, you don’t want to miss a breath. I’ve heard the Kills described as blues-punk and I wouldn’t disagree, but the controlled frenzy of their Coachella set transported me to a dark goth-punk dream/nightmare in the bright pre-sunset halo. And I loved it.
Savages – I mean, come on. Every show is different, but every show is deeply affecting, mysterious and somehow very personal. You cannot take your eyes off Jehnny Beth, even though the other musicians are killing it. You have no choice. You must be vigilant because she will not allow you to politely clap between songs. She will get on your shoulders, she will shake her fist in the air, she will point in your face, she will sing with (not “to”) you. This show was fun because M. and I dragged a bunch of friends to the front of the tent and, after years of hearing us drool about Savages, they got bitten by the Savages. Bands that just play nice songs on stage and say “thanks” at the end of the set will no longer cut it for them. And that’s just what we expected.
Other standouts for me: Vince Staples raging in the Sahara tent, Autolux working their shit out on the drums, Health leaving it all on the stage, and the Last Shadow Puppets treating the Coachella kids to a lesson on the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).”
Below: more Coachella reviews that I loved, and which make my FOMO flare up. Seems like I didn’t see or do nearly enough. Thank god for Outside Lands and FYF. I’ve got my work cut out for me.