Mediocre? You Can't Be Serious

In defense of Coachella

Those of us who make the yearly trek to Coachella do so not because the festival is a rite of passage, or a badge of honor, or even particularly cool—that motivation went out in '01 with headliners/former KROQ kings Jane's Addiction, and if not then then certainly in '02 with Oasis. So there's really no point in bloviating over whether Coachella's slipped in comparison to, say, Tennessee's Bonnaroo, or Chicago's Lollapalooza, or Sasquatch! up in Washington, especially considering those festivals draw from the same pool of "It" bands—and that, travel costs and time off aside, Tennessee is still really. Really. Far. Away. Yet that's precisely what various bloggers and music journalists—namely the Register's Ben Wener—did in the days leading up to the festival.

And, well, shit. Why?

Those of us who make the yearly trek to Coachella do so because—for lack of a better phrase—it's life. It's how we know summer is almost here. It's how we know 364 days have passed since the last time we drove to Indio. And, above all, it's how we stumble—literally—upon new bands to love. Which helps explain a note I scribbled during My Morning Jacket's late afternoon set on Saturday: "Okay, first of all, Ben Wener, Fuck You!"

Watching as the Louisville rockers delivered one Kentucky-fried jam after another—including the endlessly, hopelessly catchy "Off the Record" and others showcasing singer Jim James' from-here-to-Mars falsetto—I felt a fervor for rock & roll that I hadn't registered since first watching TheLast Waltz as a teenager. Add to this a boozy, plugged-in electric set from hippie guy/Second Coming Devendra Banhart and a gorgeous performance by Cat Power, backed by the Memphis Rhythm Band, and it's easy to see why, by night's end—physically drained and nearly reduced to tears, no joke—all I could muster was a quiet, "Let's go." And then: "I can't watch another band today after this."

If you were listening—and not just debating/whining about the presence of has-been headliners such as Depeche Mode or Madonna or Tool—this year's Coachella proved every bit as entertaining and solid as the years previous. And if you weren't listening? Well, then: Fuck you.

SATURDAY

Matt Costa, 2:05 p.m.: Local-boy-gone-sort-of-famous Costa—who, by the way, is also on the bill at Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, Sasquatch! and every other music festival reachable by R.V.—listens as a crowd of 300 or 400 (maybe 500? I'm bad with guesstimates) sings his Donovan-esque folk songs right back to him. The crowd even includes a raver in a dog costume (complete with a furry tail snaking out from beneath his shirt), who appears to particularly enjoy—as we all do—Costa's single "Cold December." Guy's on tour for the next two months straight. Godspeed, man. Make boatloads of money.

The Walkmen, 3 p.m.: The new song? "Lost in Boston"? Fun to say out loud.

Animal Collective, 4:45 p.m.:Reports from those closer to the stage laud this set as one of the best of the day, but if, like me, you're standing toward the back, this freak-pop outfit's lush landscape of yells and echoes and heavy reverb—while at points perfectly channeling Wall of Voodoo—doesn't really translate so well. I blame it on the wind pushing the sound every which way before reaching my ears. If that's even possible.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, 5:25 p.m.:There's people standing 10 deep outside the Mojave tent for the Brooklyn band's set. These people are totally content doing this. That's a Brooklyn band for you.

My Morning Jacket, 6:05 p.m.:One more thing about these guys: Radiohead better watch their back.

Devendra Banhart, 7:40 p.m.:Shirtless and shoeless and holding a bottle of wine in one hand and a guitar in the other, Devendra is the dirty hippie every mother fears her daughter will one day bring home. Two other guitarists, a bassist and a drummer join him onstage for a decidedly not-very-folksy set that includes "Long Haired Child," a quiet cover of Xiu Xiu's "Heard Somebody Say" and "I Feel Like a Child." His hold over the crowd is unreal: I can't decide if he's like Jesus or Manson, but either way, I'm fairly certain he could tell us to kill our parents and we would.

Franz Ferdinand, 8:30 p.m.:They play the hits, and you know what? The hits still hold up.

Cat Power, 8:45 p.m.:
The poignance and nervous brilliance of this set converts me into a Cat Power fan. Leading the Memphis Rhythm Band, a group of a dozen or so musicians—including a slide guitarist, a string section and some backup singers who make my knees shake—Chan Marshall serves up Southern-tinged ballads like they're mint juleps on a balmy summer night. Fluctuating between shy and flirty, a near mess and in total control, she nails it. Her voice is thick with sadness, yet there's a palpable pride there too. It's easily the best performance I've ever seen at Coachella, and I may be ruined for life because of it.


SUNDAY

Mates of State, 2:25 p.m.:Eternally consistent hubby-and-wife duo delivers another round of songs featuring their signature shout-at-each-other-over-drums-and-keyboards style. Also, lots of tracks from the new record, which, if you haven't already picked it up, might just be their best.

The Magic Numbers, 3:30 p.m.:Highly anticipated performance from this U.K. foursome—two brother/sister pairs—ends up one of the best of the day. "I didn't know there would be this turnout," front man Romeo Stodart blurts out shyly, obviously floored by the apeshit crowd response to the band's devastatingly danceable pop songs. Still, their unstoppable melodies are overshadowed by one thing: singer/percussionist Angela Gannon, whose voice drives the crowd into a screaming frenzy every time she nears the microphone.

Ted Leo, 4 p.m.:
It's a shame that the festival organizers pit Teddy boy against the Magic Numbers, since many, myself included, are torn over which set to attend. I end up choosing both, although, sadly, I kind of wish I'd stayed over at the Main Stage. Ted's got catchy hooks and licks for days, but overall they sound minute and tiny coming from the outdoor side stage. Next time, book him in a tent.

Jamie Lidell, 5:10 p.m.:It doesn't take long to find out exactly why everyone's fussing over Jamie Lidell: this pale, skinny U.K. guy is, well, the pale, skinny U.K. reincarnation of Morris Day, up to and including a sidekick responsible for following him around onstage and adjusting his wardrobe. Lidell is cocky and charming and 100 percent worth every ounce of fuss: dude samples his own beatboxing, loops it into a dance track and then busts out with crazzzzy funky soul. Unbelievable.

Sleater-Kinney, 6 p.m.:
Again, festival organizers inexplicably split the audience between S-K and Bloc Party, but this time I make a choice and commit to it. Sleater-Kinney may just be the best band touring today—when they're not facing difficulties with sound and equipment—and this performance is no different. Sticking mainly to songs from The Woods and All Hands on the Bad One—but also digging out "Get Up" for the oldster fans!—the all-woman trio lays down some of the heaviest, thickest chords heard all weekend and then closes on a 14-minute distorta-jam that wins over every single dude in the audience.

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, 8:05 p.m.:
Walk by just as Karen O wraps up "Y Control" on the jumbo monitors. She looks and sounds incredible. Did I really choose to eat a veggie burger over this? Sad face.

Madonna, 8:30 p.m.:And finally—FINALLY!—Madonna. I've seen people run at Coachella maybe two times: to the Pixies and to Radiohead. This, however, is the equivalent of those two times combined and then mixed with the running of the bulls for good measure, as hipsters, bros and hip-hop fans all sprint toward the looming dance tent for Madonna's performance—some of them pushing babies in strollers. Outside the tent, the crowd's at least 25 people deep, not to mention the fans sitting in grandstands a couple hundred feet behind those people. And we're all there, and everyone is bouncing around trying to see the stage, and then we wait. And wait. And wait. When the curtain opens nearly half an hour past start time, the reaction is beyond anything and everything I've ever witnessed at Coachella. Madonna launches into "Hung Up" off her new album and then later into "New York" and "Ray of Light"—even playing guitar for those two. "Should I play an old song?" she asks. The crowd goes nuts. "Should I take my pants off?" The crowd goes even nutsier. And then it's "Everybody," and she's gone. Five songs, 25 minutes, maybe less than 100 words. Only Madonna could get away with that. And only at Coachella would I let her.

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