The 2013 first-weekend of Coachella is in the books, and like its predecessors, there were certainly enough magical moments to make it worth all the walking and standing and suffering through enduring heat and even a major dust storm on its final night. (Also, in my case, moments that made it worth the three separate flights it took to get from West Central Florida to Palm Springs.)
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the first awesome moments of the festival for me and all others gathered inside the Mohave Stage came Friday afternoon around 4:20 p.m., when Johnny Marr launched into the opening chords of The Smiths' "Stop Me if You Think That You've Heard This Before."
The 49-year-old has spent most of his post-Smiths career (which ended in 1987) playing with a variety of bands, with the exception of his own group, Johnny Marr and the Healers, in 2000. But he has a strong new solo release out now called The Messenger, and those songs went over very well with those in attendance. But it was his three Smiths songs that blew everyone away. He also performed "There is a Light That Never Goes Out, and absolutely melted down the audience in the Mohave stage with the epic, "How Soon is Now?"
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The hits continued after that with Passion Pitt, which performed on the main stage at 6 p.m. and regaled us with songs from their 2012 latest, Gossamer.
We then ran over the Outdoor stage for one of the handful of top performances of the weekend, from Local Natives. The band played selections from their two releases, 2009's Gorilla Manor, and their recently released follow-up, 2013's Hummingbird. The crowd was totally absorbed in their sound, which has been compared to various bands including but not limited to Fleet Foxes, Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac.
The L.A.-based band acknowledged that it was a thrill to be playing as the sun was setting on the Santa Rosa Mountains, always a magical moment in Indio.
The next highlight of the the day was Beach House. Frankly, I wasn't sure I was seeing the same band that played in one of the indoor tents back in 2010, after their Teen Dream release. Then, they sounded great, but were rather dull to watch.
A few things have changed since then. First, it seems like they exude more confidence after their solid 2012 follow-up, Bloom. On stage in a prime timeslot on Friday night, vocalist Victoria Legrand was frustratingly in the shadows for much of the first part of their performance. But she then became a fiery, possessed singer, attacking her keyboard while guitarist Alex Scally added layers of sonic beauty in songs like "Silver Soul."
Friday night's line-up featured "co-headliners," Blur and the Stone Roses, two of the biggest Brit pop bands of the 1990's. For whatever reason, Stone Roses officially closed out the night at 11:40 p.m., but after playing "I Want To Be Adored," the crowd started to peel away in an alarming fashion.
Not the case with Blur and Damon Albarn, who reminded American audiences of his band's popularity on both sides of the pond with a dynamic hour-plus long performance on the main stage, featuring hits like "Girls and Boys" and their contribution to the Trainspotting soundtrack, "Sing." This was the band's first U.S. performance since reuniting in 2008, and the 45-year-old Albarn seemed to be enjoying himself in the desert heat, twice describing songs he played as being about the desultory English weather.
On a side note, one artistic giant scheduled to perform on Friday night, Lou Reed, cancelled his set at both Coachella shows as well as his other West Coast gigs last week. His absence was noted on the Coachella Stage by Emily Haines, the lead singer of Metric, who mentioned it before going into their song "Gimme Sympathy." The song discusses whether she'd rather be in The Beatles or the Rolling Stones. "For me it was the Velvet Underground," she announced, and then led the crowd to sing along to "We miss you, Lou."
After feeling like we'd spent a little too much time at the big stages on Friday, I decided Saturday was about getting into the "tents"; the three cavernous big tops provide a great way to escape the heat surrounding the Empire Polo Club, the physical site of the concert, while seeing a wide range of "non-headliners" in action.
That meant beginning the day with Wild Nothing. The dream-pop group's 2012 album, Nocturne, features gorgeous single "Paradise" that includes a reading by actress Michelle Williams from Iris Murdoch's 1975 novel A Word Child. You hear a lot about celebrity appearances at Coachella, so I admit I was secretly hoping that Williams would breeze in to give her reading, but alas, she was nowhere to be found.
Have you heard of Savages? This London-based black-clad all-female foursome delivers powerful tunes reminiscent of some of the great Riot Grrls bands from the mid-1990's, and they they put on an outstanding set. Then it was off to see what all the buzz was about surrounding Seattle performer Alan Stone, who's been called a white James Brown, and after that, to the Gobi stage to check out Bat For Lashes, the stage persona of British songstress Natasha Khan.
While I've admired her work from afar, nothing prepared me for Khan's intensity during her performance of "Laura," her voice sailing out of the park as she wailed through the lead single off third and latest album The Haunted Man late Saturday afternoon.
Alaska/Portland outfit Portugal the Man followed, and didn't really impress, so we moved on. Unfortunately, at festivals of this size and scope, with so many bands playing at one time, it's hard to make the right decision about what to see and what to miss. That was the case Yeasayer and Spiritualized. We only stood around to hear a few songs by Yeasayer in order to make time to check out another 1990's Brit band, Spiritualized. Unfortunately, their "space pop" had one too many droning guitar solos by frontman Jason Pierce, particularly disappointing since I left what I thought was a much better set by Yeasayer.
When the set times were announced last week, one of the greatest conflicts I faced was between two Saturday night headliners, with Phoenix scheduled to play one stage and (the Brits keep coming) New Order starting at the same time on another.
We went with New Order, because when were we going to see them get it together again? Band leader Bernard Sumner, 57, began the set by apologizing for not being around much (they haven't released a new album since 2005). At times, he seemed frustrated, either complaining about the lighting (too much on him) or the dusty stage (it is in the desert, as everyone learned all too well Sunday night).
The New Order set was a greatest hits package of the 1980's, not simply a backlog of band material but a satisfying trip down memory lane for those of us packed nightclubs in that era. (Meanwhile, the biggest buzz about Phoenix's set was an appearance by R.Kelly, not something I'm at all sad about missing.)
DIIV is one of my favorite new bands, formed a few years ago as the solo project of Beach Fossils guitarist Zachary Cole Smith. The Brooklyn band delivers the sort of dreamy, shoegazy guitar pop that is so damn enjoyable when done well.
New Jersey's Gaslight Anthem at the Coachella stage came next and delivered solid, Springsteen like rock.
One thing you realize very quickly on a Sunday at Coachella — no one has the same amount of energy that was expended the first two days of the fest. Even though the day began refreshingly cool, most people seemed to be moving quite languidly, and our crew was no different.
That made it nice to lay out in the sun and listen to the guitar stylings of Kurt Vile, whose sound has been described as a cross between Neil Young’s On the Beach and the 1990s lo-fi folk. However, he didn't seem to have much of an affect on the crowd, many onlookers so passive they could barely elicit a round of applause at the conclusion of his songs.
Staying at the Outdoor Stage was the 5:15 p.m. appearance of Dinosaur Jr.
Have you seen J.Mascis lately? As I eagerly anticipating his entry to the stage, I Googled (the joy of smartphones) the alt-rock guitar god, and discovered not only that he was now 47, but that he looked, well, not much like a conventional rock star. Maybe he never did, but boy, does he deliver the goods, effectively shifting from power pop tunes to heavy metal dirges and spurring on another 1990's relic, moshpits. Here's Mascis playing Dino's 1993 hit "Feel The Pain."
After Dinosaur Jr., I headed to one of my most highly anticipated performances of the weekend, Tame Impala; their 2012 full-length Lonerism, was my favorite of last year. The Aussie rock outfit played the same stage at roughly the same time they did in 2011, as the sun was setting, and it was incredible. This time around? Not so incredible. Frankly, the band should have played longer than the 50-minute set they were allotted since the musicians took an extra 10 minutes to actually hit the stage. Incidentally, this was a disturbing trend at Coachella this year, as the fest is generally a well-tuned machine when it comes to organization; none of the four previous fests I attended had so many time delays.
The final highlights of the night was Father John Misty, one of the few true singer-songwriters we saw all weekend. It also helped that his between-song banter was hilarious. "Father John" (really Josh Tillman) ended his repartee and his set by announcing that "I really wanna play one more song, but first I'm gonna start drinking this beer." Then he spit it in the air. Then he rocked out to "Hollywood, Forever Cemetery." (Unfortunately I can't find any video to supply here).
The last artist we saw was one I'll never forget: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Creepy, moody, scary, stunning. That's what I've to say about a performance featuring a children's chorus, courtesy of the Silverlake Music Conservatory, some wearing t-shirts that read "Bad Seed."
Thankfully, they were off-stage when Cave performed the lurid "Stagger Lee," where he walks into the audience, pressing his palm against a member of the audience as he speaks some damn shocking lyrics.
It was Sunday night when the Empire Polo Field became noticeably colder and windier, and the realization that we were out in the desert was never more evident than during the long walk though the parking lot to our car a good 18 minutes away. There, the sandstorm was wicked, forcing concertgoers to find whatever means possible to protect eyes and mouths from the waves of dirt.
So, another classic Coachella in the books. The second and final round kicks off this upcoming weekend...