The real headliner of the Coachella Valley Arts and Music Festival is the burning sun. Unrelenting, it mercilessly roasts with an intensity that feels very personal. It is as though our furnace in the sky is looking down upon the 60,000 person crowd and finding you – you above anyone – to focus with a hatred you can feel. The natives say it is a dry heat, somehow making its sustained triple digits less significant. Though to the non-indigenous this consolation provides the same comfort as the soft look of a puppy that just shit in your cornflakes. By the time the walk through the festival’s labyrinthian admittance process is complete all the women are in their underwear, all the men have pit stains, and all the event staff have a patience worn razor thin from the ridiculous heat and an ever growing pile of confiscated drug paraphernalia.
The first set was Tom Morello’s alt-folk acoustic project called The Nightwatchman. Located in the compartively diminuitive Gobi tent, the crowd spilled out the back and along the sides as hippies and rockers crammed next to each other to catch the first glimpse of Sunday’s headliner. The set was a a meager 45 minutes and fraught with tuning difficulties. Clearly fresh from rehearsals with Rage, Morello struck his classical guitar with an overplayed strum that frequently buzzed and clanged. The combination proved that the veteran rockstar had a genuine naked vulnerability behind the acoustic guitar. Playing a host of covers and tunes from the debut record, the gathered would-be revolutionaires pumped fisted and screamed more at Morello’s furious rhetoric than his 60’s style protest ballads. Tom Morello is an absolute incendiary on the soapbox. The set culiminated to a fever pitch when he introduced Perry Ferrell and Boots Riley (from counterculture hiphop act The Coup) for a cover of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Morello was quick to warn the audience that, “to call this song under-rehearsed is a complete understatement.”
What was delivered was one of those magical moments over the course of one’s life that makes you fall in love with rock and roll all over again. The three have so little in common musically, but united in outrage they delivered a spectacularly occasional event.
Shortly thereafter the crew grabbed a bite and happened upon Pitchfork writer Daphne Carr on assignment at Coachella. She and Amy Phillips delivered a writeup on the festival as well as an upcoming interview with Cornelius. We chatted about some of the acts we saw, the less-than-glamorous side of entertainment writing, and of course the desert heat. I quite nearly confessed my adoration for her criticism, but somehow managed to best the fanboy impulse and played it off awkwardly. The writeup they produced is brief but accurate.
Further wandering produced a remarkable find in the form of a San Francisco “bike rodeo and human-powered carnival” called Cyclecide. Featuring pedal-powered contraptions of various sizes and risks of personal harm, they produced several moments of near catastrophe. To my everlasting embarrassment, many were documented in photograph.
After a few near spills, we soaked our egos in some $6 Heineken and caught Ghostface Killah from a distance. I may be just a white boy from Kansas, but I can’t find a single rap outfit that can produce a compelling live performance. A brief discussion was had on the causes, and I believe the conclusion was with the element of improvisation missing, engagement with an audience is not going to be as successful as rock and roll.
The Mayor of Coachella came out to introduce Ozomatli at the next stop, who delivered one of the highlight performances of the weekend. Executing a 45 minute set loaded with new material off of Don’t Mess With The Dragon, Ozo loaded Gobi with diehard fans chanting “Ya se fue.” The band is consistently disappointing on record, and their set cemented their superiority as a live act.
By the time our shaken and stirred ensemble drifted to catch Saturday’s headlining Red Hot Chili Peppers, we were foot sore and heat drunk. They took their sweet time taking the stage and by the fourth or fifth song about California, I had my fill. The omnipresent complaint around the main stage is that the sound was very empty, and the victim of the greatest cruelity of this failure was clearly Chad Smith. Even had the sound been resolved midset, the performance fell far short from compelling, giving urge to investigate the other late night performers.
Gotan Project was on the second main stage and a complete unknown to me. A fairly large flamenco ensemble from Argentina combines with two Parisian electronica DJs to from the sound, much of which corresponds with pre-produced video. Again, the absence of improvisation made it difficult for anyone to get too excited. But, Gotan Project did deliver one of the few truly original performances of the weekend.
Our first day closed out with The Rapture and Tiesto. The former being a competent electonic rock ensemble hailing from across the Atlantic and the latter being total goddamned rubbish. The superiority of Tiesto’s sound to the Chili Peppers was frequently mentioned as a near criminal trespass. I was quick to remind folks that Tiesto’s set was hardly a difficult mix as it could quite possibly be the CD on an iPod at the board. Green lasers and scattered ass on a five story video screen I guess is all it takes to make it in Holland and the global electronica scene. However, we had sandwiches and beer at HQ, and a tolerance for shit music worn thin by a day of desert heat and unbelievable rock and roll.