Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Coachella Festival 2011 review: Day 1

A different version of my review originally appeared in the Register newspaper and can be viewed at:

I managed to catch full or partial sets by 32 of the 150+ musicians and DJs appearing at this year's Coachella Festival (my 10th since its 1999 inception), held at the Empire Polo Grounds in Indio, Calif. Here is my rundown from April 15:

Once the gates opened around 11:30 a.m. and I walked around the festival grounds to get a bead on the various changes (added acreage, fresh art installations, another stage, tweaked stage dimensions), it was time to dive head first into the music.

12:20 p.m. Los Angeles-based R&B act Miguel - a songwriter with credits including Usher, Mary J. Blige, Musiq and others - opened the proceedings at the Mojave tent stage. I didn’t arrive until the tail end of his set, when the smooth, romantic tune “Teach Me” segued into an extended cover of Prince’s “Little Red Corvette.”

While watching Miguel from outside the tent, I saw some interesting attire choices among festivalgoers passing by. A young guy sported a lion costume that surely got sweaty as the temperature increased and a gal wore a shear covering over little more than a small bra and panties.

1 p.m. DJ Metaphase spun hard techno in the Oasis dome for a dozen or so people gingerly dancing around.

The food court adjacent to it included the Pie for the People booth, where an odd menu selection was a slice of “David Bowie Pepperoni.” Wonder if the Thin White Duke should get a cut of the food proceeds?

1:15 p.m. Comprised by keyboardist Adam Anderson and sharply dressed singer Theo Hutchcraft, Hurts held court in the Mojave with a captivating mix of new wave and goth sounds. Sporting slicked back hair, Hutchcraft had an appealingly emotive vocal style reminiscent of Take That’s Gary Barlow (not a slight). Live, the group is expanded to include a drummer and a male operatic backing singer in a tuxedo who stood completely still. The Manchester, UK synth-pop duo definitely impressed with the percolating, Depeche Mode-styled “Better Than Love,” the danceable “Illuminated” and scintillating textures of “Stay” from last year’s debut, Happiness.

1:45 p.m. Across the way in the mercifully air conditioned Musicians Institute Live! tent, Hawaian female singer-songwriter Ipo Pharr did a short acoustic set of pleasant pop tunes from her A Sweet Heart EP. While exiting the tent, I saw a thirtysomething woman in a multi-colored taffeta ballerina outfit.

2:43 p.m. There was quite an afternoon groove session happening at the Outdoor Theatre stage, courtesy of Sacramento indie dance rockers !!! Nic Offer (pictured, left) did more wild shimmying a la Mick Jagger than actual singing, but the band's electronic touches really got the crowd riled up. One fan played right along with an inflatable air guitar.  

3:05 p.m. Back in the Mojave, Philly darkwave/noise rock band Cold Cave bore traces of The Bravery and Sonic Youth. Lanky front man Wesley Eisold, clad in dark sunglasses and a long-sleeved black sweater, had a nasal singing style that sometimes veered into anguished Peter Murphy territory. A gloomy “Underworld USA,” from new effort Cherish the Light Years, was among the tunes with prominent assistance by keyboardist/guitarist/backing vocalist Jennifer Clavin and stood out from the pack.  

4:10 p.m. The Drums drew a good-sized crowd in the Mojave tent. Extremely popular in England, the young New York City indie pop band’s enticing 2010 self-titled debut has sold 60,000 copies there. Singer Jonny Pierce previously was in the New Romantic-leaning group Elkland that put out a major label release and toured with Erasure in ‘05.

Coming off like a wonderful cross between The Smiths and Vampire Weekend, with a little Ocean Blue mixed in, the four piece proved to be a frothy delight. Onstage, Pierce had a ultra-dramatic delivery akin to Morrissey, with frequent falsetto vocals, yelps, exaggerated gestures and posturing. He worked up quite a sweat too: at one point noting, “I think I might pass out after that.”

The giddy “Me and the Moon,” where people dutifully bopped along, the whistling-accented “Let’s Go Surfing (led by guitarist Jacob Graham’s tasty surf licks), infectious New Order-esque “Best Friend” and the careening synths amid “I Need Fun in My Life” were among the many standouts.

4:53 p.m. The Morning Benders probably nabbed the day’s award for most inventive happenings onstage. The Brooklyn-based, indie chamber popsters had two artists painting on the both sides of the stage. Unfortunately, I only caught the tail end of the Chu Brothers' set at the Gobi tent. Guitarist Chris passed out dozens of shakers for audience participation on the sway-worthy “Excuses” from latest album Big Echo. Peppered with cascading, doo wop singing captured in a loop, it was a fun ending.

6:25 p.m. Portland electro-pop duo Yacht had the Mojave packed and its crowd dancing big time - especially a group of about a dozen gay men who looked like they could’ve come from last week’s White Party in nearby Palm Springs. Androgynous lead singer Claire L. Evans was riveting, while her male musical partner/keyboardist Jona Bechtolt easily kept everyone riled up. The buoyant performance included several promising previews of tunes from the upcoming Shangri-La release (the quirky, B-52’s-leaning aliens song “Beam Me Up,” a funky "One Step,” mini-rap in “Paradise Engineering”) due in June on DFA Records.  

7 p.m. I'd always heard that Cold War Kids put on a dynamic live show, but didn't realize how much until seeing them for the first time on the Outdoor Theatre stage. The band, formerly based in the O.C., recently released the fine Mine is Yours, a more textured collection produced by Jacquire King (Kings of Leon). Starting the Friday set around dusk with the intense, reverb guitar-drenched "Mexican Dogs," Nathan Willett then gave his high vocal range a real workout on the spirited "Royal Blue," punctuated by Matt Aveiro's tribal beats.

Among the other high points: "I've Seen Enough," the U2-like "Hospital Beds," "Bulldozer," which had a captivating sense of dramatic uplift, the lurching alt-radio hit "Hang Me Out to Dry," and passionate vocal delivery on "Louder Than Ever." Willett was also very gracious toward all the fans watching them. 

7:45 p.m. Heading across the field to witness some of Interpol, I found the moody New Yorkers still retained their sense of mystery live and Paul Banks' (pictured, near right) deep baritone was rich as ever, especially on "Evil," "NYC" - from the great 2002 debut album Turn on the Bright Lights - and "Barricade," off last year's solid self-titled effort.

The visuals were just as intriguing as the music since David Lynch collaborated with them for "Interpol Under Surveillance." Big screens at the sides of the main stage projected four black and white squares showing shadowy images of the band and fans when they weren't quickly scrolling numerals or showing Lynch's bizarre "I Touch a Red Button Man" animation that accompanied "Lights."

8:20 p.m. Back during Coachella ‘09, The Killers headlined Day 2. This time around, front man Brandon Flowers was solo in support of his engaging Flamingo album. The lush, galloping “Only the Young” got the Outdoor Theatre set off to a dreamy start as Flowers’ clear-as-a-bell vocals were bolstered by two cooing female backing singers.

He prefaced “Magdalena” with a detailed explanation about how it was inspired by a pilgrimage to Mexico and an annual marathon journey the natives embark upon. It was the most I’d heard anyone speak onstage all day. Colored by festive castanets and hurdy gurdy sounds, the upbeat tune was an early highlight. One fan waved a Mexican flag around.

“We’re going to head back to 1981 for this,” Flowers said as some young audience members looked puzzled. Although the regular tour cover of Kim Carnes’ No. 1 hit, “Bette Davis Eyes” wasn’t too different than the original, he still managed to make it his own and had fun.

A sweeping “Jilted Loves & Broken Hearts” came across even more majestic live, while the peppy, sinewy Vegas vignette “Was it Something I Said?” had an omnichord spotlight (loved that!). On “Hard Enough,” Flowers recalled some of idol Bruce Springsteen’s more heartfelt ballads and dynamic alt-rock radio hit “Crossfire” found him working both sides of the stage.

“Look at these stragglers I found,” enthused Flowers, before introducing Killers cohorts Dave Keuning on guitar and Mark Stoermer on bass. The crowd size had been respectable during the performance (up against the Black Keys on the main stage), but it quickly swelled as people recognized the Killers’ songs (“Read My Mind,” “Mr. Brightside”). Grinning from ear-to-ear, Flowers exclaimed “oh yeah’ on an electrifying take on the latter, kneeled on the stage and waved his arms in the air as fans sang along loudly.

10:05 p.m. Despite some initial technical glitches on the big screens, Day 1 headliner Kings of Leon definitely put on an impressive big rock show. The Followill clan came out strong right out of the gate with the ominous "Closer," Jarod's dirty bass grooves on "Crawl" and Nathan's jittery rhythms during the hit "Radioactive." 

Having missed the tour for 2010's under-appreciated Come Around Sundown, it was great to finally hear that newer tune live as well as the lurching, trumpet-colored "Mi Amigo," swampy slide guitar-led change of pace "Back Down South," high flying harmonies amid "Mary" and "The Immortals."   

Then front man Caleb (pictured, left) said, "we're tired off playing the new stuff" and proceeded to pack quite a wallop on old fan favorite "Molly's Chambers" (where Jarod's rubbery basslines dominated and Matthew unleashed another sizzling solo) and ethereal "On Call." The strident acoustic pop-flecked "Fans" was a pure joy.

Toward the end, when Kings of Leon did the highly melodic "Notion," stomping "Sex on Fire," glorious "Use Somebody" and other material from Only By the Night - my top album of '08 - it brought the show and first day to an exhilarating conclusion.

Top photo of Coachella art installation by George A. Paul, taken with a Sony Bloggie Touch

All band photos by Laurie Fanelli,

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