Radiohead Rocks Coachella

I arrived in the desert as ominous clouds overhead wormed
their way into the Coachella Valley. A festival worker greeted us with the
warning of imminent rain and violent winds, and after our car camping pass
registered as “invalid,” we just barely managed to talk our way into the
grounds. I fell asleep on Thursday night shivering along with our tent,
helplessly torn between catching Flying Lotus on Saturday or attempting to snag
a good spot for Radiohead—for the first time in my five glorious years of attending
the greatest music festival on Earth, I felt

feeling persisted into the next day as I watched early afternoon sunlight,
typically the lifeblood of any given day at Coachella, slowly swallowed up by
overcast skies. The winds sped up, the temperature sank, and suddenly it no
longer became acceptable to mock the fashion-over-function ethos of your
flannel n’ jeans-clad hipster stereotypes moseying about.

Anticipation for that first drop of rain almost trumped the
excitement for a mid-afternoon set from Kendrick Lamar, the swift-tongued MC
from Compton whose mix tape Section.80
stood out as last year’s finest hip-hop record.  Despite performing amidst a light drizzle,
Lamar quickly electrified Coachella’s main stage with hits like “HiiPower,”
“Rigamortis,” and “A.D.H.D.,” easily legitimizing the title of “New King of the
West Coast,” an honor bestowed upon the young rapper by none other than the
festival’s headliners and kings of old: Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg.

By the time I arrived at the Outdoor Stage for Neon Indian’s
late afternoon set, the row of idyllic palm trees that typically give the stage
its postcard-like backdrop instead buckled beneath the wind’s intensity. Alan
Palomo’s mix of 80s synth-pop and chill wave felt oddly out of place against an
overcast sky, but once the 8-bit sparkle of Era
standout “Polish Girl” chimed in, the band won out in its struggle
against the elements. Set closer “Ephemeral Artery” felt necessarily tough, and
driven by the song’s engine-revved chords, Palomo and co. redeemed themselves admirably.

Following Neon Indian, San
Francisco’s Girls continued to demonstrate their complete mastery of
repackaging retro-flavored surf pop as something new, and as always it worked
wonders. Previously shoved into an early day slot in the Gobi Tent two years
earlier, Christopher Owens appeared genuinely humbled by his band’s placement
in the oft-coveted sunset hour set on the Outdoor Stage. Unlike Neon Indian
however, Girls never suffered from the lack of sunshine, even on bouncier ditties
like “Honey Bunny” and “Lust For Life.” A trio of gospel singers backed Owens,
coloring hits like “Laura” with an unlikely psychedelic vibe. On the epic
7-minute lament of “Vomit,” one of the backup singers lit up the stage, overtaking
Owens’ demure voice with a rousing vocal solo to triumphantly close Girls’ set
with a bang.

Several hours later, my wallet
sucked nearly dry after only 2 slices of
pizza and a bottle of water
, I found myself in the Mojave Tent, yawning
through M. Ward’s completely unremarkable brand of imitation roots rock. Eventually,
darkness set in, and the Rapture’s Vito Roccoforte emerged, introducing the
bass drum heartbeat of “In The Grace Of Your Love.” One-by-one, the remaining
band members joined him onstage, gradually layering instrumental lines with
calculated precision. Eventually, as the crowd swelled with excitement,
polo-clad front man Luke Jenner emerged, his Greg Brady haircut still intact.
Jenner’s distinctive wail pierced the night air, and the Rapture quickly
proceeded to reaffirm their status as pioneers of 21st century
disco-punk. No one around me seemed familiar with some of the cuts off of
2006’s excellent Pieces Of The People We
, but that hardly made the album’s jumpy title track any less of a
sing-a-long. Instrumentalist Gabriel Andruzzi consistently stole the spotlight
from Jenner, igniting the saxophone solo on “Get Myself Into It” between
frequent turns on the cowbell. By the time the Rapture seamlessly transitioned
into the wild and era-defining “House Of Jealous Lovers,” not a single pair of
feet remained stationary. On set-closer “How Deep Is Your Love?”, already a
2011 anthem, the Rapture tore through their instruments with the type of
rampant energy that defines a truly unforgettable Coachella performance,
setting the standard for the weekend to come.

Fortunately, M83 immediately met and
surpassed that standard, if only because, unlike the Rapture, the French band’s
brand of electro-pop—grandiose and arena-friendly—aims for nothing less than
universe-conquering immortality. But confidence in their ability to melt the
ever-loving shit out of everyone’s eardrums never once betrayed M83’s genuine
humility, as frontman Anthony Gonzalez reminded us time and time again how
truly honored he felt to play. Opening with the swelling synths of Hurry Up, I’m Dreaming’s “Intro,” the
band plunged us right away into the brightly-lit excesses of Gonzalez’s
nostalgia for all things adolescent, science fiction, and of course: the 1980s.
However, the real stars of M83’s show—instrumentalists Morgan Kibby and Jordan
Lawlor—dominated the stage, never pausing once for breath as they hammered
through the mammoth 8-minute electro jam of “Couleurs” like a pair of sugar-high
siblings. Shuffling, leaping, and twirling across the stage, the duo played
each song like their lives depended on it, elevating sedated tunes like Before The Dawn Heals Us’ “Teen Angst”
to dramatic new heights. Rarer cuts like “Sitting” from M83’s self-titled debut
as well as Gonzalez’ remix to Daft Punk’s “Fall” from the Tron: Legacy soundtrack gave the set the feeling of something new,
while proving how little the band cared about acquiescing to the demands of the
crowd. Of course, M83 still found time for favorites “Steve McQueen” and “Midnight
City,” the latter initially toned down to make ample room for its defining sax
solo. Above all, M83’s Friday night performance radiated with a range of such powerful,
often overwhelming emotion—for both performer and audience—that I find it oddly
pleasing I still cannot adequately express in words what “We Own The Sky”
sounded like.

The next morning I awoke to the
depressing realization that every minute of my life could not be spent watching
the Rapture and M83 play back to back. A warm breeze, a sparsely clouded sky,
and the pain of spending $5 on a mediocre iced coffee quickly brought me to my
senses again, and more Coachella awaited.

The sun-splashed Saturday afternoon
kicked off with a set from New Pornographers-alum Dan Bejar and his solo project
Destroyer, whose album Kaputt stood
out as one of 2011’s best. Bejar never once acknowledged the audience, and
Destroyer’s calculated no-frills approach to live performance lent it the
quality of something cool, laid back, and unfriendly—in other words, perfect
for a lazy Coachella Saturday.

After a typically memorable
performance from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, Merill Garbus’ tUnE-YaRdS
took the stage. Flanked by a pair of horn players and a James Dean-coiffed
bassist, Garbus immediately got to work layering beats and vocal riffs for the
one-two punch of w h o k i l l’s
“Party Can” and “Gangsta.” The ease with which Garbus crafts the interweaving
loops that define her sound—at this point second-nature for the
Connecticut-bred artist—gives her performance the sheen of consummate
professionalism that feels rare in indie music nowadays. She relished and
constantly encouraged audience participation, especially on the rise-and-fall
of “Es-So,” or the bluesy vocal abandon of “Powa.” But nowhere was Garbus’
energy more contagious than on “Bizness,”—already a standout from her latest
record—here rendered into a 10-minute romp of slapping sticks and swirling
saxophones made all the more visceral by Garbus’ banshee wail.

An hour later, thanks to some slick
crowd maneuvering and the Kaiser Chiefs’ distracting front man, I stood three
rows back at the main stage, having made my decision: Flying Lotus would have
to wait; tonight I was getting some ‘head.

But first, Noel Gallagher’s High
Flying Birds or something like that. Never quite an Oasis fan, I still found it
mildly entertaining to imagine Gallagher—already notorious as a Radiohead
smack-talker and all-around asshole—stewing over his bland solo project’s opening
slot for Thom Yorke and co.

Next came the Shins. For an era-band
with the odds unfortunately stacked against them—absent from the music scene of
the last half-decade, a reputation for shoddy live performances, “play that
song from Garden State” etc…—the
Shins plugged out the most surprisingly excellent set of the weekend. Framed by
an eerie tableau apparently borrowed from a Tim Burton film, the Shins wasted
no time whisking us back to high school with “Kissing The Lipless” and
“Australia,” both of which easily showcased leader James Mercer’s shiny pipes.
The accessible cuts from their recent record, Port Of Morrow, blended in perfectly with crowd-pleasers such as
“Phantom Limb” “So Says I,” and of course, the song from Garden State (“New Slang,” not “Caring Is Creepy,” to my slight
disappointment). The real standout from the Shins’ set however, came about a
half-hour in, when they launched into a cover of Pink Floyd’s “Breathe,” easily
a contender for the quickest-clicking, most sensible song of the weekend. The
Shins played tightly, and with enough genuinely inspired resolve to dispel any notion
of the band as just another exercise in nostalgia.

 Then, beneath a nautical backdrop
and amidst light-up orbs of gold and azure, the nine members of Justin Vernon’s
Bon Iver took the stage. Like M83, Vernon and friends rendered their
arena-worthy music with all the heart-pounding drama of something legendary.
Like M83, Bon Iver set their sights on rock-god superstardom. Unlike M83, Bon
Iver’s Saturday night set felt like a kitschy fantasy, the product of a starry-eyed
man-boy in love with his own adolescent dreams of 80s hair metal excess. Don’t
get me wrong here: Bon Iver rocked.
They probably rocked more than any other band the whole weekend, evidenced by
the sheer ferocity of numbers like “Blood Bank” and the cinematic instrumental
breaks on “Perth”. But when you rock out to songs that hold personal, heartfelt
significance for most likely 75% of your audience, it looks and sounds cheap
and insincere, like hitting on girls at a funeral. The moment “Skinny Love”
evolved from one-man’s pained sing-a-long to another 9-man muscle-flexing
melodrama, Bon Iver’s set began to look like a rock n’ roll soap opera: artificial,
overacted, and unintentionally goofy. I saw right through Justin Vernon’s
hollow attempts to tug on my heartstrings, and instead of feeling “something
real” along with all the teary faces next to me, I spent the majority of the
show languishing in my own cynicism.

Dehydration set in, and coupled with
the immense hunger and sluggish aches overwhelming my body, I nearly collapsed
before Radiohead took the stage. Of course, endorphins quickly took care of it
all, and as soon as Thom Yorke’s hypnotic croon introduced King Of Limbs opener “Bloom,” everything washed away. Radiohead’s
most recent record never quite connected with me like In Rainbows did, and perhaps the pure delight of finally seeing
them live for the first time in my life overwhelmed my ability to remain
critical, but even now, writing almost a week later, I still look back on their
performance on Saturday night as nothing short of perfect. It’s astonishing
that even as Coachella embraces the changing of the guard, slotting in EDM
headliners like Swedish House Mafia and AVICII, Radiohead still come across as
the most forward-looking band in the house, providing two drummers’ worth of
beats to keep up with their contemporaries. Performing hits like “15 Step” and
“Idioteque” under a constantly shifting array of hanging LCD screens, the band
appeared at times to inhabit a neon-lit commercial for Sony or Apple. A leather
jacket-clad Thom Yorke seemed to embrace his own “dancing” meme, slithering and
squirming across the stage with the versatility of every other lead singer at
the festival wrapped into one tiny lizard-man on ecstasy. For a band touring
behind a lukewarmly received album, Radiohead certainly made believers out of
all of us—“Morning Mr. Magpie,” with its persistent beat pulsing beneath a sea
of muted tones, instantly hammered home how translatable the band’s new
material is in a live setting. Newer cuts, like the wounded lilt of
“Staircase,” or the half piano ballad/half brassy jam of “The Daily Mail”
worked surprisingly well. Of course, Radiohead still took advantage of familiar
territory to keep us enthralled, and songs like “Karma Police,” “Lucky,” and
“Pyramid Song” needed hardly any tampering to stand out. At the moment I feel
unfairly biased by how recently the show occurred, and to label it the greatest
Coachella performance I have ever seen completely ignores previous years, but
for now, let’s call it the best set of the weekend.

Despite how distanced I felt from
Sunday’s selection of shows—what with the emotional intensity of the previous
two days still looming over my head—Coachella closed out strong. A late
afternoon set from New Jersey’s Real Estate, grippingly loud but necessarily
relaxing, worked wonders to fend off the Sunday blues. Everyone’s faces
registered calm smiles during “Out Of Tune,” some feet began to shuffle for
“It’s Real,” and the numb guitars on Days
closer “All The Same” pleasantly dragged on for just long enough.

Finally, the weekend ended with a
triumphant set from Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg, pioneers of gangsta rap and patriarchs
of West Coast Hip-Hop. It happened rather quickly, if only because their entire
show felt so consistently pleasurable. 
From the slew of guest artists performing their own signature
hits—including snippets of Eminem on“’Till I Collapse,” 50 Cent on “In Da
Club,” and even Wiz Khalifa’s turn on “Young, Wild & Free”—to the live
band’s renditions of classics like “The Next Episode,” “Forgot About Dre,” and
even an instrumental version of “Xxplosive,” Dr. Dre and Snoop spent the
entirety of their performance bathing in their own legacy as hip-hop
superstars. And we loved them for it.

By the end of the weekend, for the
first time in 5 years I regretted nothing. Every decision I made felt like the
right one, except for maybe not purchasing passes for Weekend 2.

Oh, and a hologram of Tupac appeared
on Sunday night. It was weird.  

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