Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Coachella Festival 2014 - Weekend 2 review

Selected coverage below appeared at

Each year I eagerly look forward to attending the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, California (near Palm Springs) to catch performers that I missed on recent tours, reacquaint myself with old favorites, revel in a few reunions and see if some really do live up to the hype. 

This was my 13th time at Coachella, which started in 1999 and has been held annually since '01. 

The event featured 150+ acts from around the world. Over three days during Weekend 2, I managed to witness partial or entire sets from 33 of them on six different stages (three were EDM or DJ-based).

An early arrival always helps to survey the amazing array of art installations and take pictures without a bunch of people around. This year's crop included Reflection Field by Philip K. Smith (pictured above), CryoChrome by James Peterson, Lightweaver by Alexis Rochas - which most people called "the pretzel" - Smart Bird by Festo, Becoming Human by Christian Ristow, Caterpillar by Mike Grandaw, Squared by Charlie Gadekan, Escape Velocity by Poetic Kinetics (aka "the astronaut") and others around the Empire Polo Field and campgrounds.

On Friday, the first artist on my target list was British sensation Tom Odell in the Mojave tent, drawing a decent crowd for his dramatic and melodic pop-inflected rock at noon. The BRIT Award-winning singer/pianist and his backing trio proved highly impressive during songs from his solid U.K. chart topping debut, Long Way Down, like a haunting “Can’t Pretend” and the Coldplay-esque “I Know.”

Odell brought to mind a young Elton John with some spirited playing, and at other times recalled underrated fellow countryman Ed Harcourt.

A female fan yelled “you’re a babe” to the young blond musician. More than a pretty face, his chops were clearly evident amid “Another Love” (a big hit at home) and a soaring “Till I Lost.”

Next up was Baltimore's Wye Oak in the Gobi tent. Before launching into the electronic splendor of "Before" (off new release Shriek, due out next week on Merge Records), singer/bassist and guitarist Jenn Wasner warned: "Welcome to our dark tent. This is as dark and moody as it's gonna get."

During the dreamy title track, Wasner - sporting shades - played a gilded keyboard pattern as her creative partner Andy Stack drummed with a light touch. But the real highlight was the hypnotic "Logic of Color," which had a Yaz musical feel paired with Wasner's clear-as-a-bell, Joni Mitchell-styled vocals.

An overcast afternoon proved to be the perfect setting for Dum Dum Girls. The NYC-based female noise pop band's shadowy tales of broken relationships on the Outdoor Theatre stage provided the soundtrack to a large, but lackadaisical crowd just chilling out.

Lead singer/guitarist Dee Dee Penny wore a sheer, see through black top (color of choice for these gals) that left nothing to the imagination and stood in front of a flower bouquet strewn mike stand. Songs from the latest album Too True, like the glossy, reverb sheen of "Rimbaud Eyes" and  "Under These Hands" were pure bliss. Then Penny pulled out all the stops on epic ballad closer "Coming Down." 

Jagwar Ma drew a large audience to the Gobi tent with their psychedelic dance tunes. Launching with a slow-churning drone, the Sydney trio suffered a bit from a poor sound mix. Yet that didn't stop fans from dancing up a storm to the strains of "Man I Need" (think: 1990s Manchester, England baggy scene), "Exercise" and "Come and Save Me" (featuring a little of Madonna's "Ray of Light"). 

The positive, zany vibes of LA alternative band Grouplove went down a storm on the main Coachella Stage in the late afternoon.

With large graffiti-scrawled 'G' and 'L' letters adorning the stage, their energetic set included "Raspberry," "Shark Attack" and "Spun." The sacharine schtick grew old after awhile though and it was onto more compelling sights and sounds.

Bastille fit the bill. The award-winning UK alt-rock hitmaker filled Mojave to the brim with their memorable, percussive-heavy singalongs. Taking the stage to the strains of the theme to TV show "Twin Peaks," fans sang along loudly from the get-go as lanky singer Dan Smith pogoed around during the title track to debut disc "Bad Blood."

They definitely kept my attention throughout, particularly on "Things We Lost in the Fire," "Icarus" and exhilarating KROQ/106.7 FM fave (and multi-platinum top 10 single) "Pompeii." The cover of Snap's 1992 dance hit "Rhythm is a Dancer" was surprisingly good.

A pair of reunited acts, both featuring their original lead singer and bassist, ended up having the biggest impact Friday.

First came Afghan Whigs, who packed a mighty punch with a Mojave set mostly focused on their new album Do to the Beast. Grammy-winning soul man Van Hunt on hand to reprise his backing vocals from the studio versions. Listening to their music felt like walking down a dark alley in the seedy part of town.

Greg Dulli's sandpaper vocals were powerful as ever. He made reference to it being Good Friday, then the band did an ominous take on "Heaven on Their Minds" from the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar."

Later in the evening, The Replacements, clad in matching plaid suits, were joined by special guest Billie Joe Armstrong.

"We're the world's greatest Replacements cover band; we're called The Cements," joked frontman Paul Westerberg, who was suffering from back problems (and opted for an old Pittsburgh Pirates jersey for attire). He spent much of their time onstage laying on a couch and singing with Armstrong.

Bassist Tommy Stinson (on loan from Guns 'N Roses) also tossed off quips like "this song is from the 1900s." Anchored by drummer Josh Freese, they had a blast with an off-the-cuff performance featuring a few different fan favorites ("Kiss Me on the Bus," "Shooting Dirty Pool," "IOU") than last week at Coachella, not to mention signature songs ("Left of the Dial," I'll Be You," "Bastards of Young").
Fortunately, the 'Mats set ended earlier than at Coachella 1, so I was able to see the tail end of art rock legend Bryan Ferry's set, including a sublime rendition of his classic "Avalon," plus the snazzy "Virginia Plain."

When gates opened at 11 a.m. Saturday, a bunch of people ran over to the Zia Records pop-up store to peruse exclusive, limited edition Record Store Day titles.

Only problem was one of the Arizona-based retailer's shipments was late. People interested in finding more vinyl on their wish list had to return at 1 p.m. The place was very crowded by then.

Late Saturday, there was an unofficial battle between which electronic-based pop act had the best dancers in outlandish masks.

Empire of the Sun's dazzling production spectacle packed the Sahara tent, while a short time later, Pet Shop Boys also served up a fine audio-visual feast in a half-filled Mohave. I'd say the former won by a hair.

I only caught the first half of Pet Shop Boys because Muse simultaneously closed the main Coachella stage.

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe started off in black porcupine suits (the first of several costume changes).

The first portion's standouts included the hits "Opportunities (Let's Make Lots of Money)" and "Suburbia" as well as choice cuts "One More Chance/A Face Like That" and "I Wouldn't Normally Do This Kind of Thing" (prefaced by an interpretive dance and everyone onstage in bull horn masks). Several shirtless gay men writhed about, possibly practicing their moves for next weekend's White Party in neighboring Palm Springs.

Aussie Luke Steele's crew in Empire of the Sun expertly mixed live instruments, programming and theatrics like nothing I'd seen before. Songs from the latest album Ice on the Dune all came across well.

Dashing over to the well-attended, but not crammed Coachella stage field, I found England's Muse had re-jiggered and shortened its set from the previous week here and dropped the Nirvana cover.

Singer/guitarist Matt Bellamy led a "Happy Birthday" singalong to actress girlfriend Kate Hudson. "Madness" and "Time is Running Out" were riveting as ever; "Starlight," appropriately magical (albeit lessened by his foray into a B-stage mid-crowd).

Before "Uprising," there was a technical glitch with the cherry pickers that carried Bellamy and bassist Chris Wolstenholme over the crowd. These guys definitely revel in rock bombast (there were also fire plumes above the stage) like few others.

Other U.K. bands made a mighty showing in the tents earlier that afternoon. The post-punk band White Lies were truly transcendent. I don't know why they're not as big Stateside as at home. Frontman Harry McVeigh, clad in a white t-shirt, was all smiles and happy to be back here for the first time in five years.

Prior to an exciting "Unfinished Business," McVeigh noted, "this is a special song for us; the first one we wrote and our first single."

He frequently gestured as he sang and stretched his baritone. From brawny opener "Farewell to the Fairground" and "To Lose My Life" to the swelling synth-heavy "Bigger Than Us" and lush buildup of "There Goes Our Love Again," it was a killer set.

Bombay Bicycle Club filled Mojave and went down a storm with intriguing tunes like "It's Alright Now" and "Home By Now" that recalled everyone from Boo Radleys and Dido (the female backing singer moved front and center a few times), plus Arabic melody samples. LA's Aerial Cinematography Specialists The Drone Dudes flew one of their mini robots over the crowd, prompting mild-mannered singer/guitarist Jack Steadman to smile awkwardly (either in bemusement or dread).

NYC-based Drowners were all clad in black. Their material, ranging from post-punk to Britpop, was a real kick in the pants, sometimes recalling a harder-edged Auteurs and the Smiths ("Button on Your Blouse," "Luv, Hold Me Down," "Shell Across the Tongue"). Welsh leader Matt Hitt finished up by saying "seeing you at the bar." He later told me that their name referred to drowning your sorrows in beer as opposed to the song title by London Suede as I'd thought.

The Pixies were in top form at a well-attended Mojave, front-loading their very loud set with '80s college/alt-rock radio classics like "Wave of Mutilation," "Gouge Away," "Where is My Mind?" and "U-Mass." Frank Black wailed like a madman, while Joey Santiago's shards of electric guitar still cut to the quick.

New songs from the impressive, long-awaited reunion album "Indie Cindy" due in stores next week ("Bagboy," "Magalena 218," the poppy "Greens and Blues") fit in extremely well with the old stuff. And recent recruit Paz Lenchantin on bass acquitted herself well.

After watching music until 1 a.m. the night before, Easter at Coachella was a real lazy Sunday for me. The higher temperature played a role in a short-lived sluggishness. 

Frank Turner’s rousing brand of Celtic-tinged folk/punk immediately dissolved it. The Englishman drew a respectable mid-afternoon audience in the Gobi tent. 

Just as potent as expected and armed with his acoustic guitar, he recalled a young Billy Bragg. “Plain Sailing Weather” (off last year’s Tape Deck Heart) proved fiery, while the wild “Try This at Home” evoked the Pogues and made some enthusiasts dance an Irish jig.

“I feel this is the weekend for real (music) people. The last one was for hipsters,” he noted, before the mandolin-enhanced ballad “Way I Tend to Be.” Another tempered tune, “Wessex Boy,” about Turner’s hometown, prompted a woman to wave a large Union Jack around.

I would’ve liked to have stayed for the entire set, but I was curious to see how The 1975 went over at the Outdoor Theatre stage, having missed their sold out show at Santa Ana's  
Observatory last year.

Dashing to the Outdoor Theatre to watch the last half of their set, I conveniently landed there at 4:20 p.m., thus avoiding any potential clouds of marijuana smoke that might've cropped up in celebration of April 20 (Stoner's Day).

Led by reedy voiced guitarist Matthew Healy (whose mother is actress Denise Welch of long-running UK soap "Coronation Street"), the Manchester-based synth rock band provided the day's best background for several hundred Coachellians vegging out on the grass. The catchy songs about sex: "Heart Out," "Girls," "Chocolate" and um, "Sex" weren't exactly deep, but pleasant to hear.

It was also my second time seeing a sax player onstage, following Capital Cities' super fun appearance on the Outdoor Theatre stage at sundown Saturday. By the way: that LA-based pop band, clad in colorful matching jackets, took the award for sheer exuberance here - notably on perky opener "Kangaroo Court" and major hit "Safe and Sound." Their covers of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" were pretty ace too. 

Returning in short order to Gobi on Sunday, I found a smallish audience there for Superchunk. I didn't see the influential Chapel Hill, NC indie rock band at Coachella ’09, hadn’t seen them since the ‘90s and thought the latest album I Hate Music was strong.

Assisted by tour bassist Jason Narducy (known for live work with Bob Mould), lead singer Mac McCaughan and company didn't disappoint. They provided plenty of careening guitar feedback-laden maelstroms, plus poppy hooks on songs like “Me and You and Jackie Mittoo,” “FOH,” “Trees of Barcelona” and “Crossed Wires.”

New Zealand synth pop group Naked and the Famous did a satisfying turn that mixed denser selections from last year's In Rolling Waves ("A Stillness," "I Kill Giants") with their high flying top 20 alt-rock hits from 2010 ("Punching in a Dream," Young Blood").

Later that night, Gobi hosted yet another sharp set. This time, it was John Newman. The 23-year-old Yorkshire, UK native exuded showmanship. No wonder his 2013 debut effort Tribute topped the chart at home, sold 300K copies and spawned a pair of top 10 singles there.

At Coachella, Newman’s take on Northern Soul was exhilarating and easily the best thing I saw at the festival. Bringing to mind Terence Trent D’Arby, Fine Young Cannibals’ Roland Gift and James Brown, he did some dance moves, collapsed to the floor and paused for dramatic effect.

Despite seemingly half the festival’s attendees watching Beck and Lana Del Rey elsewhere, plenty were drawn to this location.

A trio of backing vocalists bolstered Newman's full-bodied sound, particularly on “Cheating,” the ebullient “Gold Dust” and syncopated hit “Love Me Again.” Fans were also treated to “Not Giving In,” Newman’s popular ’12 breakbeat collaboration with Rudimental and Alex Clare.

Capping the weekend off, Arcade Fire put on a solid set launched with the usual people cavorting onstage in large Mardi Gras-styled masks. Leader Win Butler said, "let's get our special guests out of the way right now" and a fake Daft Punk suddenly played part of a slowed down "Get Lucky" until the band officially started with "Normal Person."

Among the highlights: "Neighborhood 3 (Power Out)," the intense waltz "Crown of Love" - a tour debut with Win on piano - and the racing pace of "No Cars Go."

He prefaced the affecting "We Exist" by explaining it was about a gay kid coming out to his father. "It should be obvious by now, but the ability to marry anyone you want is a human rights issue. We support of gay marriage." That kind of pronouncement probably wasn't heard in many churches Easter Sunday, but it should've been.

I was surprised not to see any musicians mention Easter and only a couple reference Good Friday onstage. There was some religious imagery projected on the big screens on each side of the Outdoor Theatre when Del Rey did the haunting "Body Electric" Sunday night though.

And what was up with all the cardboard cutouts of movie and music stars that people held up? Is this a trend? Regardless, there were plenty of memorable musical moments to savor at Coachella - still one of the best music festivals in America, despite the increasing attendance level. I look forward to the 2015 edition.

Thanks to Robert Kinsler for the use of some photos. Read his coverage at


ida said...

Wow, I was out of breath just reading about all the bands you got to see! I'm so glad you got to check out John Newman ...he is definitely a new fave of mine. Ditto Bryan Ferry, who made me swoon at his non-Coachella shows last week ... he never disappoints. I saw what I think was Arcade Fire's entire set on AXS TV ... they continue to be a riveting act. I honestly don't know how you keep up on so much new (and old) music ... I have not heard of so many of them before. You sure know your stuff. Thanks for the great re-cap.

newwavegeo said...

Ida, I appreciate the feedback. Glad you got to see some of Arcade Fire on TV.