Few surprises emerge as Coachella Part I ends
WELL, in the end it’s a business. But so it is at the beginning, and in the middle. An ambient question about the three-day Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which ended recently – or did it? – was whether the knowledge that it would be repeated exactly one week later in the same place and in the same order might alter the minute-by-minute feeling of it. You know, make it less special.
Take away its aura. Does Coachella have an aura? It did once. At large destination pop festivals, impressive surprises are experienced as acts of generosity: a balloon rising into the vast desert sky, a three-hour set. This is what unites large numbers of people and makes them feel innocent. Not the weekend’s quick-stop onstage guest appearances, from macro to micro.
Moments like those are as much for celebrity blogs and YouTube clips as they are for music fans. They don’t make you, standing in the crowd, feel particularly innocent. This year more than ever, the sets felt like jobs with a bit more self-promotional energy. I don’t remember a lot of shared awe. Will the surprises be better next weekend? Who knows, but it’s unlikely with much less news media present.
This festival was founded 12 years ago on the premise of indie rock, which is, or has at times been, an art of innocence and scepticism, in other words, ideals. It’s g r o w n out of t h a t t o become a festival of popular and semipopular North American English language non-country music, a megamart of sound for college kids.
It’s strong on Grammy winners, breakout acts from South by Southwest and the CMJ festival from a year or two ago, and, at this point, second-tier reunions.
And dance music, which is likely to alter Coachella’s future more than any of the genres it has flirted with over the years.
Aesthetically it’s almost uncontainable, which is neither good nor bad; it’s just breadth, Spotify made real.
The oxymoron of a unique cultural event set to rerun was, obviously, a way to sell more tickets – 75,000 more – without making the festival too crowded.
And that plan worked: Both weekends sold out, and the crowd felt at capacity but no more. The security felt nonintrusive and often invisible, as it should be; this is a calm audience.
I saw violence only once, during the Death Grips’ set on Friday. That band, from Sacramento, has a great idea: nonidiomatic digital dance beats with Zach Hill’s hypercreative, improvised live drumming on top and Stefan Burnett’s mostly unintelligible yammering raps and chants. It’s bad-dream music, strong and strange, with dirty rock riffs occasionally drifting in – Pink Floyd’s Astronomy Domine, Link Wray’s Rumble. It’s music that can start fights, and it did.
The two-part festival is a big deal for music on the West Coast, and not just at the festival site, the Empire Polo Club. It means that a lot of these bands play other club and theatre shows in Los Angeles before or after the festival weekends – many of them also booked by Goldenvoice, the festival’s promoter – and some of them run up to San Francisco in between the shows.
In 2012 the headliners didn’t define the festival, or, on the face of it, lure concertgoers to spend money specifically here – as opposed, say, to Sasquatch or Lollapalooza, in May and August, each of which has about two dozen of the same acts as Coachella in their lineups. Most of the names in the biggest type were acts that have been seen a lot in recent years, in touring circuits and wherever else: the Black Keys, Swedish House Mafia, Bon Iver, Radiohead.
Anyway, innocence. You saw it projected onstage rather than felt by the audience, as part of the music’s artifice, in band after band with cool eyewear, retrospective yearnings and the trebly sound of Fender Jaguars and Jazzmasters: Girls, Yuck, EMA, Ximena Sarinana, M83, the Shins, Real Estate, and even the R&B singer Frank Ocean, beset with sound problems, singing beautifully and moving diffidently.
It was left to Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg, on Sunday night, to work the surprises.
They performed wall-to-wall hits from 10 to 20 years ago with a pile of guests: Eminem and 50 Cent; Wiz Khalifa as rap’s present; the Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar as its future; and, as its past, a full-body holograph of Tupac Shakur, digitally pacing the stage and appearing to ask Coachella what was up.
All of that put the second-tier reunions in a pretty good light. At the Drive-In, which broke up in 2001 and started a reunion tour on Sunday, looked and sounded testy, fully energised. The thought it hadn’t finished back then, a baroque, hyper-emotional and technically imposing version of hardcore punk, still seemed futuristic, only half-explainable.
On Saturday Firehose, which ended in 1994, worked hard through its own woolly, funky, buzzy para-punk; Cedric Bixler-Zavala, At the Drive-In’s singer, watched from the side.
Pulp, the best storytellers of ‘90s Britpop, came with its disposition and humour intact, which mostly means that its singer, Jarvis Cocker, has kept his game tight. His exaggerated physical poses and average- Joe lyrics have aged well: all the grasping and glamour and disappointment in his act is like moldy camp given a noble purpose.
Likewise with Abel Tesfaye, the singer and producer of the Weekend, the Canadian R&B project. In the past year and a half he’s gone from zero visibility to an almost perfectly undersaturated success; it happened via the Internet, of course, through mixtape-sharing and the endorsement of Drake. He’s starting his first tour, and festivalgoers crowded around the Outdoor theatre stage on Sunday to see whether he had the goods.
He did and he didn’t.
He brought a small but heavy-gauge live band, but his arrangements held them back on purpose; he sang in the lightest of falsettos, pretty and quivering, as he inhabited an unapologetically horrible romantic persona. And that was perverse pop counterintuition at its best – just as strong and potentially worldbeating as what might be its opposite, the functional party-hard surfaces of Swedish House Mafia’s techno. His music was delicate, airy, still and tense; when he raised his voice to meet the occasional dynamic shifts, he ran into serious intonation problems.
It got messy. But it was a creative and complex kind of mess, and probably a fixable one; a surprise in its own way. A large crowd watched him hungrily, and you could almost sense his fame shooting up in real time. Next year, if he’s lucky, he might appear for 30 seconds on someone else’s stage.