Saturday, May 3, 2008

Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival 2008 review

Last week, I survived the California desert heat at another Coachella Festival. I’ve attended seven of them, either in full or part, since the first in 1999 (it wasn’t held in 2001). Although this trip to Empire Polo Field in Indio wasn’t quite as memorable as previous years, it still boasted plenty of highlights. Here’s a rundown…

Day 1:
Redd Kross, a power pop/punk band championed by KROQ’s Rodney on the Roq since their teenage beginnings in 1980, put on a fun and lively afternoon set in the mid-sized Mohave Tent. Steve & Jeff McDonald excelled during “Switchblade Sister” and “Janus, Jeanie and George Harrison” (from 1987’s “Neurotica”).

Laid-back, afro-beat/rock stylings of buzz band Vampire Weekend impressed, especially on the audience participation number “One (Blake’s Got a New Face)” and “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” They went down a storm with the large crowd - so large in fact, that people packed in tightly behind me near the soundboard. Between songs, singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig, clad in bright Bermuda shorts, related several songs’ meaning to Southern California or the desert (even if they weren’t written with those locales in mind).

The National put out one of the 20 best-reviewed albums of 2007 (according to with “Boxer.” The Brooklyn-based indie rockers drew a medium-sized audience at the Outdoor Theatre (competition included Goldfrapp and Raconteurs). A setting sun added another dimension to their dark and atmospheric tunes. Matt Berninger’s low vocals recalled Nick Cave and Leonard Cohen. He was a riveting presence, bounding around the stage and roaring the lyrics like a madman. The National easily lived up to the hype.

Back together after a nearly a decade apart, The Verve took the main Coachella Stage right before headliner Jack Johnson. The British quartet still possessed the power to enrapture fans with such grand pop and psychedelic-tinged alt-rock songs as “The Drugs Don’t Work” and hit “Bittersweet Symphony.” Leader Richard Ashcroft sounded great (even if he did come off a bit aloof at times like fellow Mancunian Liam Gallagher). And Nick McCabe’s spiralling guitar work was a wonder to behold.

I caught some of the Breeders’ endearingly sloppy set (apparently the jovial Deal sisters forgot to rehearse) on the Coachella Stage. “Divine Hammer” was the only tune I recognized; unfortunately “Cannonball” played as I dashed to another stage.

Another set of twins, the Quin Sisters of Tegan and Sara, followed. Usually, I can only withstand the Canadian duo’s music in small doses due to a tendency to veer into histrionics. But their acoustic-based folk/rock was inviting, especially on radio hit “Walking with the Ghost.”

Jack White and the Raconteurs kicked out the jams on the Coachella Stage, nearly veering into Led Zep territory at times. Yet their songs aren’t nearly as memorable.

Day 2:
“We’re not used to this kind of heat,” said former Clash guitarist Mick Jones (pictured above), as he took off his jacket on the Gobi Tent stage. Then he and Carbon/Silicon proceeded to do a sizzling and thoroughly enjoyable afternoon performance revolving around debut disc “The Last Post.” Jones had a blast joking around with fellow guitarist Tony James (the pair were in the short-lived combo London SS together in the 1970s before Jones went off to the Clash and James joined Billy Idol in Generation X). Jones told humorous stories behind the garage rock-meets B.A.D.-styled songs (“Magic Suitcase,” “War on Culture,” “The News”) - including his family trip to Disneyland a few days before. He called an audible on Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and segued into The Clash’s “Police on My Back” during the extended raucous closer, “Why Do Men Fight.”

It was quite a hoot seeing Dwight Yoakam performing Buck Owens covers from his latest CD “Dwight Sings Buck” on the Outdoor Theatre stage. Yoakam and his band were even clad in colorful Nudie suits.

British producer extraordinaire Mark Ronson’s rotating crop of guest vocalists (The Charlatans’ Tim Burgess, Kaiser Chiefs’ Ricky Wilson) during the evening on the same stage definitely made his old time revue style set stand out from the pack. Too bad Amy Winehouse couldn’t make it.

Electronic music pioneer Kraftwerk proved mesmerizing with its old school visuals and sounds straight out of ‘70s Germany. I loved the songs where both German and English words were projected on the main stage’s large screens (“Vitamin,” “Tour de France,” “Man Machine”). It was like being in high school language class.

Prince went on a half hour later than scheduled (no surprise there), then annoyingly began the first 25 minutes of his main stage set showcasing songs he’d either written, produced or sung with others. Morris Day & the Time did “Jungle Love” and Sheila E. sang “The Glamorous Life.” Then it was onto his takes on “I Feel for You” (Chaka Khan) and “U Got the Look” (Sheena Easton). Finally, as midnight approached, he delved into an extended version of “Controversy” and a slowed down “Little Red Corvette,” fell a little flat. Apparently, Prince played for another half hour or so, but I dashed out early to beat the traffic mess.

Other Saturday acts worth noting: Cold War Kids, Portishead (some of the new songs were downright scary; excellent visuals), Death Cab for Cutie (their quiet intensity is better suited for indoor venues), Devotchka (best known for the “Little Miss Sunshine” film soundtrack; I’ll definitely seek out their latest CD).

Underwhelming: Stephen Malkmus & the Jicks (his dry wit was engaging; the jam-style rock, less so - and I was a big Pavement fan).

Day 3:
A good chunk of the audience must have partied down the night before because people were slow to trickle in Sunday. Austin TV opened the main stage with some enticing rock en espanol.

Perennial Coachella act Perry Farrell was back at the fest, this time singing with an electric guitarist, some pre-recorded beats/samples and his sexpot wife on backing vocals/suggestive moves. It wasn’t far removed from his Satellite Party group. Farrell threw in some cool dance-oriented takes on Jane's Addiction (“Stop!,” “Been Caught Stealing”).

Scandinavian alt-pop group Shout Out Louds were pure bliss with music that recalled Belle & Sebastian and mid-‘80s Cure. Highlight #1 of the day.

Nineties British shoegazer group Swervedriver also reunited after a long absence. But numbing guitar squalls and zero stage presence left me cold.

Spiritualized main man Jason Pierce played acoustic guitar in the Mojave tent. He was accompanied by an all-female string quartet and gospel trio and a pianist. It was quite charming once numerous sound problems were ironed out. One Coachella couple even got engaged as a romantic tune was playing.

A difficult decision loomed as dusk approached: take in the always mind-blowing My Morning Jacket and indulge in the spaced out hippie jams or experience Love & Rockets for the first time?

After I watched MMJ’s Jim James & Co. (with M. Ward guesting on acoustic guitar) for half an hour on the main stage (the reggaefied “Off the Record” rocked in supreme fashion as usual and the new songs were very soulful), I dashed over to the Outdoor Theater for Love & Rockets.

The English trio got off to a strong start with their popular cover of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion” and later treated fans to such radio faves as “No New Tale to Tell” and “No Big Deal.” In between, the attention level waned. I needed to find a decent place to view Roger Waters’ closing extravaganza and split during an extended number featuring dancing animals onstage. Don’t know if they ever did “So Alive.”

Waters’ big production was just as amazing in the huge confines of the Empire Polo Field as it was last summer at Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre in Irvine: stunning visuals, a crisp surround sound mix that startled people around me and a large top-notch band (props to guitarists Snowy White and Andy Fairweather-Low) that gave each Pink Floyd tune a well-deserved richness. “Set Controls to the Heart of the Sun,” “Pigs” and “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” were tops. Once Waters’ announced a brief intermission before launching into “Dark Side of the Moon,” I made my desert escape.

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