Never Mind the Shit, Here's Coachella

Is this annual desert festival an ordeal or orgasmic experience? Yes

At the Outdoor Theatre, Ghostface Killah's hype man got off to a shaky start by shouting, "Ghostface in the building!" Uh, it's an outdoor theater. The sound here was much weaker than in Sahara, with only drums, bass and voices audible. After a snatch of the theme song to The Little Rascals, we got a truncated "Ice Cream," then a lot of banal chatter from Ghost, such as "How many y'all motherfuckers smoke weed out there?" and "Niggas like to get drunk and fuck." We got a half-assed medley of Wu and Wu solo-artist hits, then Motley Crue's Tommy Lee came onstage and flashed his tits. When Ghost began shouting out Cameron Diaz and begging girls to come onstage and dance with "Pretty Toney," the reek of bullshit competed with the human counterpart from the crappers.

So I bounced over to Sahara to witness Justice (more Ed-Bangin' Frenchies) re-define the powers of bass. Justice played thick, filthy, distorted, funky techno that could prepare a superpower for war. I found the big glowing-white cross before their gear disturbing; sure, their logo is probably harmless iconography in their hands, but with music this overpowering and Nuremberg Rally-esque, it made this atheist pacifist uneasy.

That feeling passed as soon as I hit the wild party in session that is a Girl Talk set. About 50 revelers reveled onstage as Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis manipulated and/or mashed together on his PowerBook a radio or club hit every 30 seconds. I detected Styx, Aerosmith, Missy Elliott, Bob James, Khia, the Jacksons, Panjabi MC, Rick Ross, Lady Sovereign, Spank Rock and many more in 10 minutes. People danced and text messaged simultaneously. I <3 the 21st c.

Sunstroke of genius. Photo by Vaughn Youtz/Zuma Press.
Sunstroke of genius. Photo by Vaughn Youtz/Zuma Press.

LCD Soundsystem blasted out the most blazing set of the fest, for my sweaty currency. They drew a crowd that spilled well out of the Sahara tent and raised the roof with songs from both of their albums that blew away their recorded versions. Inspirational rave-up "Yeah" displayed the power of positive shrieking and rapidly hit timbales and Roland 303 churn and squeal. LCD should've ended it on that overwhelming adrenalin (c)rush, but they closed with the Lou Reed-ian ballad "New York, I Love You But You're Bringing Me Down," a rare, schmaltzy misstep by this unstoppable live unit.

My night ended with Cornelius' Japanese quartet, who finessed out ultra-vivid prog-pop fusillades with bright electronic embellishments and more wind chimes than I've ever seen on a stage. Neil Peart would've been jealous. The incredibly artful and surreal visuals complemented the band's Day-Glo™ Boredoms sound. Senses duly surfeited, I trudged to the exit, much more familiar with horse ass than I ever could've imagined.

*   *   *

Sunday dawned hot and stinky—again.

Flustered from the ordeal of reaching Empire, I bought a $3 Gatorade (best deal of the fest) and hustled to the Sahara to view Richie Hawtin work his techno magic in scorching daylight—strange after seeing him multiple times late at night in warehouses and other cavernous places. The crowd at the start of his set was shockingly sparse but gradually filled up as Hawtin spun (or Serato'd) a series of bleep-intensive tracks by Canadians, Germans and Americans you've never heard of. This music is at once alienating, sexy and eminently danceable. The Sahara's system miracled this minimal techno into immensity.

During Hawtin's performance, I had an epiphany. A stocky 30ish guy stood motionless amid several writhing dancers. Dressed in navy button-down shirt, gray slacks and sensible black shoes, he wore his auburn hair slicked back; his severe mien suggested "Bulgarian bureaucrat." He seemed to be tabulating the BPMs as they were booming out of the speakers. This stoic, stock-still character, I decided, is what Coachella is all about. Well, it was either him or the fortysomething moms wearing tie-dyed overalls or platinum-blue bob wigs with matching mini-skirts who were tripping the light klutztastic. Really, the full spectrum of humanity represents here.

At the Gobi tent, Konono Nº1 were producing joyous undulations of cowbell, congas, snare drum and sprightly metallic tones from likembés (thumb pianos). Imagine: These seven folks traveled from central Africa to do this simple, timeless trance music for us spoiled Westerners. Tears welled up in my eyes—and, for once, not from the odor, but rather from the beauty and purity of Konono's sinuous, ramshackle sound. And then somebody asked me if I had any X for the third time in an hour. "No, but how about some killer Advil?" I rejoindered, proving that my snark could be just as unbearable as the climate.

*   *   *

The beauty of Coachella is that its multiplicity of stages and its proliferation of performers and punters make for wildly divergent experiences (the bands I missed on purpose or through bad luck could've launched others to sonic satori). Furthermore, Coachella offers one of the few chances for coddled scenesters to rough it on an epic scale. I'm sure many people also had blog-worthy sex or mortifying diarrhea or underwent spiritual transformations or scored mind-blowing drugs or stepped in puke and ruined their furry fuschia boots or concluded that music has become as meaningful as a hacky-sack kick. It's all a roll of the dice, innit?

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