Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Coachella Festival 2011 review: Day 2

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

The temperature heated up and so did the lineup at Saturday’s Coachella Festival, where there was no shortage of memorable moments. Heading into the Empire Polo Grounds in the early afternoon, I knew there would be difficult choices to make come evening due to conflicting sets (missing Scissor Sisters, for example, who overlapped with Arcade Fire). Yet I still caught excellent turns by several performers.

3:17 p.m. Oxford, England's experimental alt-rockers Foals played to a capacity crowd in the Mojave tent. I was pleased that event organizers reconfigured the side openings so more people could watch from outside. "Blue Blood" led into the highly rhythmic groove of "Olympic Airways," with Jimmy Smith's clarion call guitar effects leading the way. Shaggy haired and bearded lead singer Yannis Phippakis said "Miami" was about a "bad beach experience" before the band jammed away.

4:05 p.m. Southern California's Delta Spirit (pictured, left) was the definition of laid back at the Outdoor Theatre. Members of My Morning Jacket assisted on last year's History From Below.

The hazy alt-country, blues and rock tunes provided an appropriate soundtrack for relaxing on the expansive Empire Polo grass in the blazing sun. Lead singer Matthew Vasquez bounded across the stage to start "Bushwick Blues," where he and the other two guitarists bashed away at their instruments. Later, Vasquez did some brief crowd surfing. The audience dutifully clapped along to the droning, percussion heavy "White Table" and an acoustic guitar intro led into a drone and maelstrom finish during "Ransom Man."    

5:50 p.m. Back inside the Mojave, Jenny and Johnny (Jenny Lewis of Rilo Kiley; her singer/songwriter beau, Johnathan Rice, pictured) impressed with their frequently acerbic country-inflected pop-rock from last year’s I’m Having Fun Now. Opening with the driving “Committed,” Lewis’ honeyed pipes and Rice’s brash delivery meshed equally well live as on the album.

Throughout the set, they effortlessly traded off verses, bringing to mind other popular male/female music couples like John Doe and Exene Cervenka or even George Jones and Tammy Wynette. “Just Like Zeus,” about Hollywood bar Jumbo’s Clown Room, was insanely catchy. The upbeat, slide guitar-enhanced “Big Wave” had a summery vibe, grand acoustic guitar ballad “Switchblade” could’ve easily come from a classic movie soundtrack, while the alluring “Slavedriver” felt like something from the Sixties. The pair even delved into their most recent solo albums: Lewis’ did “Carpetbaggers” and Rice’s rootsy, humorous “We’re All Stuck Out in the Desert” definitely fit the occasion well.

7:05 p.m. Elbow, also at the Mojave, mesmerized a largely enthusiastic crowd with its atmospheric alt-rock and progressive-leaning music. Over the past decade, the Manchester, England band has forged a reputation for crafting gorgeous and intriguing tunes with magnificent peaks and valleys. 2008’s Seldom Seen Kid nabbed the esteemed Mercury Music Prize. New effort Build a Rocket Boys! downplays the orchestration, but is still enthralling.

Coachella 2011, Elbow

Making its first SoCal appearance in many years, Elbow brought along two female violinists (sure beats triggering the sounds on keyboards; at least these guys can afford it) to sweeten Seldom selection “On a Day Like This” and a couple others.

Launching with the epic, haunting grandeur of “The Birds,” emotional vocals from Guy Garvey (pictured)  were a wonder to behold, especially amid the quiet, organ-led “Lippy Kids” - about restless teenagers - and the dismissive, mournful-sounding “Station Approach.” Elsewhere, the swampy blues of “Grounds for Divorce” was simply riveting as the front man banged on drums and urged crowd participation. 

7:55 p.m. While leaving Mojave, my ears were immediately drawn to the smaller adjacent Gobi tent, where Austin-based alternative/glam rockers Electric Touch made a return appearance at Coachella. British singer Shane Lawler possessed an undeniable swagger and vulnerability like New Yorker Jesse Malin. Their scrappy take on The Beatles' "Come Together" and piano-led power ballads "Saved" and "Alone" were standouts. The major label follow up to their promising 2008 indie release was produced by Howard Benson and tentatively due out this summer. Can't wait to hear it.   

9:06 p.m. There are usually a few noteworthy band reunions at Coachella and the ‘11 edition was no exception. Big Audio Dynamite, the innovation and influential group formed by ex-Clash man Mick Jones in the mid-1980s, deftly mixed rock, dance beats, sampling, rap and more into one heady sonic brew. They enjoyed minor success on college/modern rock radio (not to mention dance clubs) and finally hit commercial pay dirt here with 1991’s The Globe.

Dormant for 14 years, B.A.D. put out a superb deluxe 25th anniversary reissue of 1985 bow This is Big Audio Dynamite in 2010 and recently returned with the “classic” lineup: Don Letts (samples/vocals), Leo Williams (bass), Don Donovan (keyboards) and Greg Roberts (drums). No stranger to Coachella, Jones performed with Gorillaz last year and his other band Carbon/Silicon prior to that.

Before the fun and highly entertaining set began with jungle sounds as an intro to “Medicine Show,” one guy standing behind me was overhead telling someone, “This is the closest to the Clash you can get.” B.A.D. focused on the early albums and did full extended versions.

Jones, clad in dressy attire, served as the cordial host, tossing off bon mots before nearly every song. He shared an interest in jack rabbits and said the low-key dub tune “A Party,” with Letts taking the first of many opportunities to show off his sharp toasting skills, was possibly about Gen. Mohammar Gaddafi. The crowd didn’t hesitate to dance around, particularly on the poppy “V. Thirteen,” “E=MC2” (Roberts played crashing drums and continually tried to pump up the crowd) and infectious “Battle of All Saints Road.” Among the high points were “The Bottom Line” and hit single “Rush.” Here the latter was more raucous and Jones got another  opportunity to show off his dexterity on electric guitar.

Suede (Brett Anderson) _LS06763xr
10:45 p.m. Known for sexually-charged, Bowie-inspired glam rock, The London Suede was among the most popular Britpop acts of the ‘90s (though, like Pulp, it found commercial success elusive in America), reformed earlier this year. They have a new career retrospective available now. Coachella marked London Suede's first live appearance in the States since 1997. A still lithe Brett Anderson (pictured, left) was a firebrand on the Mojave stage and hasn’t lost one shred of charisma or vocal prowess in the intervening years.

Throughout the modesty attended set, he strutted, jumped and vigorously shook his body all around and gave the 'ol dramatic falsetto a good workout. Content to let the music do all the talking, Anderson and company - minus bassist Mat Osman, who had visa problems and couldn't make it across the pond; usual keyboardist Neil Codling took his place - were extremely sharp.

They began with a slammin’ “She” and along with Richard Oakes’ frequent guitar flanging, piled through one sassy rocker after another (“Animal Nitrate,” “Film Star,” “The Drowners,” “Killing of a Flash Boy,” ‘Can’t Get Enough”), but also did exquisite ballads (“The Beautiful Ones,” “Asphalt World”). By the end, London Suede went down a storm and provided one of Coachella’s overall best performances.

Delta Spirit, Jenny and Johnny, Coachella ferris wheel photos by Laurie Fanelli,
Elbow photo by Chris Thacker via
London Suede photo by Lindsey Best,

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