Coachella, Day 2

Recovering from yesterday’s illness forced me to miss 120 Days, MGMT, Little Brother and Boys Noize. Bah.

But I arrived in time to see some Stephen Malkmus N the Jicks. Their loose rock jams slash sea shanties were adorned with much proggy filigree. It was nice big-sky music for a big-sky setting. “It’s time to go fucking Jack Johnson on your ass,” Malkmus announced later, strapping on an acoustic. That was my cue to bolt.

I strode over to the Sahara tent to catch Erol Alkan spinning ravenously raunchy electro with XXX bass textures. Man, the DJs at Coachella have been really bringing their A games. With an hour to dazzle the masses, there really is little time for filler. Everyone realizes that a stellar job here could mean big bookings for the future. So everybody wins.

Next I grabbed some dinner and had the misfortune to experience the awful aural trainwreck that occurs when seated between Dwight Yoakam’s adequate country rock at the Outdoor Theater and the massive percussion structure/sculpture called Parabola. The latter is like something out of a magnificent Harry Partch dream: several makeshift gongs, xylophones, metal poles, and drums of all shapes and sizes, on which Coachella attendees are free to unleash their inner Mickey Harts or Tony Allens. The chaotic yet still somewhat coherent rhythm never ceased rolling and tumbling during festival hours. This was a great idea, but it led to some horrendous contrasts in sound, like the one outlined above.

Time for Hot Chip. Wow—the Sahara tent was overrun with fans. This was one of the most clustery of clusterfucks. Hot Chip have gotten really popular in the last year (they played here in 2007, but not to this size of a crowd. In a nutshell, Hot Chip have become probably the preeminent live, song-based electronic band in the world. Their melodic and rhythmic gifts have coalesced into a well-oiled pleasure machine. “Over and Over” has become their anthem and manifesto (“The joy of repetition really is in you”). Not bad for some pasty, self-deprecating Brits with flat voices.

Over at the Gobi tent, fellow Englishmen Cinematic Orchestra engaged in some mellow, meandering soul jazz. Last time I saw CO (at South by Southwest in 2000), they evoked Sun Ra’s artful, freeform freakouts. Now they’re more refined and restrained—more coffee table than outer space. But it’s still good for what it is.

But for this observer, all of this has been merely a prelude for the mighty Kraftwerk. Still vital nearly 40 years after their inception, the German quartet maintained the same setup that they fielded in their last N. American tour: four dignified, business-suited members standing stock-still in a line behind laptops and synths while vibrant images of bicyclists, trains, autobahns, robots, words, geometric shapes, etc. flicker behind their motionless forms. “Man-Machine” started things splendidly, the beats and bleeps cutting through the fetid desert air like ice picks. Lyrics got run through a device that makes everything sound like Stephen Hawking with emphysema. It’s the opposite of what’s commonly thought of as “soul,” but it’s ideal for Kraftwerk’s precise cyborg boogie.

Kraftwerk’s set traversed many of their classics and best songs: “Trans-Europe Express,” “Autobahn,” “We Are the Robots,” “Radioactivity,” “Computer Love,” “Numbers,” “Computer World,” “Tour de France.” Even the newer cuts like “Vitamin” and “Planet of Visions” sounded brilliant and vital.

I expected Kraftwerk to close with “Pocket Calculator,” but instead we got “Boing Boom Tschak” merged with “Musique Non Stop.” That’s Kraftwerk’s patented sly humor there, ending the show with a song called “Musique Non Stop.” Also funny is the fact that old gents who look like bankers are some of the funkiest mofos on the planet.

After Kraftwerk, I had about 20 minutes to dash over to catch a little of Animal Collective and M.I.A.’s performances before returning to the main stage for Portishead, the act whom I’m most excited to see. Animal Collective, to grossly generalize: the Beach Boys in dub and on DMT—in a cave. Yeah, that good. The M.I.A. situation was another clusterfuck. In the three minutes I hovered outside the Sahara tent, I heard lots of simulated gunshots, airhorns and finally some of “World Town.” M.I.A. had on a flattering platinum-blonde wig and a flashy mini-dress. But Portishead beckoned…

Portishead had to be the most anticipated set of Coachella—Prince notwithstanding. And they killed it. Their drummer, Clive Deamer, was powerful and nuanced, and Geoff Barrow augmented him well with passionate percussion and an expressive array of scratches. Adrian Utley added resonant, haunting guitar hues throughout. Beth Gibbons conveyed her trademark noirish diva drama with modulated mastery. She even got Patti Smith on us during one new quiet-stormy track (“Threads”). Portishead wove new cuts (the stark, martial “Machine Gun” and the krautrockin’ “The Rip” were particularly striking) in with the old favorites (“Wandering Star” was transformed into a beatless wonder of understated tension and heartbreak). Talking to many spectators later, I discovered that Portishead were the highlight of this year's Coachella.

Prince, you may be shocked to learn, came on 25 minutes late. When he finally graced the stage, he shouted, “Coachella! I am here! Where are you?!” Then, “You are in the coolest place on earth right now!” Few would argue his point.

He and his band were decked out in classy white and dove-gray suits. Holy shit, the Purple One’s old mate Morris Day’s on stage and they start the set with the Time’s “The Bird” and “Jungle Love.” And what’s this? Sheila E? “The Glamorous Life”? Yes, yes it is.

But… the sound is muted. How can this be? Portishead sounded firmament-fillingly large. Why would Prince sound muffled? Who’s working sound here? Some shlub from a Palm Springs dive bar?

Anyway, Prince and co. gamely tore through “1999,” “Controversy,” “Little Red Corvette,” “Cream,” “U Got the Look,” and other gems from his bulging back catalog, adding jammy, jazzy flourishes when they felt like it. But their impact was diminished by the mystifyingly low volume and lack of clarity. You’d think a notorious control freak like Prince (no photos allowed, supposedly, but our Christopher Victorio and others somehow circumvented the vaunted Prince security staff) would demand the best sound quality in the history of the universe for a concert like this. But no.

However, a triumvirate of covers at set’s end raised spirits, as Prince Prince-fied Sarah McLachlan’s “The Arms of an Angel” (performed by his backing vocalists), Radiohead’s “Creep,” and the Beatles’ “Come Together.” The night climaxed somewhat predictably with “Purple Rain” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” After that, a massive traffic jam in the Empire Polo Field’s parking lot ensued, despite many punters leaving before “Cream” had even concluded before midnight.

Clearly, some sort of temporary mass transit system needs to be implemented in Indio during Coachella. If nothing else, it would reduce the monstrous carbon footprint the fest leaves every April. I’m thinking a shuttle bus system in which the vehicles run on vegetable oil and recycled Greenpeace leaflets. Anything has to be better than the mollusk-paced crawl and vast plumes of exhaust that transpire when approaching and departing Coachella.

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