A rough night meant I didn’t make it to the festival grounds until close to 3, but that was never really a problem: the first act I wanted to see happened to be Sputnik favorite The Tallest Man on Earth at 3 pm in the Gobi tent. Throughout the weekend the Gobi seemed to be getting the least love, but this afternoon it was unusually packed, everyone there just to see one tiny Swedish dude and his guitar. He didn’t disappoint – any fears I had of his occasionally grating voice transferring to a live setting were quickly dispelled: he actually sounded better live! Everything came together on “King of Spain,” the audience lifting Kristian Matsson’s voice to new heights and his acoustic guitar ringing out over the tent grounds quite effectively.
My indie rock embarrassment of riches began shortly afterwards with Americana group Delta Spirit at the Outdoor stage. They may not be the most original band, but as a live performance they put on quite the show. Singer Matthew Vasquez’s long dark locks made him look like Dave Grohl’s lost twin, but he sounded more Walkmen than Foo Fighters, his gravelly voice propelling the band’s dust-and-blood barroom tales further than they could have hoped. For a band with a minimal following at the festival, Delta Spirit, like Titus Andronicus the day before, really delivered it for their fans.
I then caught the latter half of Irish rockers Two Door Cinema Club at the Mojave tent, a location and time slot I found odd given the group’s rapid rise. Any doubts I had about the band’s rather omnipresent sound (read: vaguely derivative) were cleared up by their ace live show and the fact that the audience was one of the most into it crowds I’d seen all weekend. They were quick, clean, and to the point, driving home their music in a workmanlike manner that was admirable for its effectiveness, unlike so many bands throughout the weekend that relied more on gimmicks than musicianship.
After watching a boring twenty minutes (seriously, is SoCal soft rock dead yet?) of Jenny Lewis’ and her boyfriend’s masturbatory band Jenny and Johnny and all the while wishing for a new Rilo Kiley album that doesn’t totally suck, I headed over to the main stage to catch legendary Canadian collective Broken Social Scene. Do you like rock music? If you said yes, chances are you would have loved BSS’s set, a mix of old and new that ran the gamut from the best of You Forgot It In People (“Cause = Time”) to crowd-pleasing newer anthems (“Meet Me In The Basement”). The only shame was that neither Emily Haines nor Feist made it out to play with the band. Next up was the New Pornographers at the Outdoor stage. The Canadian power-pop “supergroup” has always been the very picture of consistency, and their Coachella gig (the latest in a long line of them) was no different. They played a set heavy in fan favorites, from “The Laws Have Changed” to new standby “Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk,” and I even caught Katy Perry catching a bit of their set as she headed backstage. Side note: one of the best things about Coachella is that even if a band’s new album isn’t your favorite (like BSS and the New Pornos), the festival environment always lends itself to the band’s best songs regardless of where they are in the catalogue. The fan is always right.
Bright Eyes followed Broken Social Scene on the main stage, and Oberst and the band came through with a fantastic set, including a roaring rendition of “Shell Games” that saw Oberst overcome a falling mic. But for someone who was once proclaimed as “the next Bob Dylan,” that raw emotion and passion that many criticized was missing from The People’s Key also seemed to be missing from his live performance, despite the on-target band and Oberst’s constant interaction with the audience. He was good, no doubt, but he was professional as well, and, coming from Oberst, maybe that’s just a little bit weird. Bright Eyes is an indie rock mainstay now, not the exciting flash-in-the-pan, teen angst-filled poet he was, and perhaps that’s a little tragic.
On the Outdoor stage was something totally different, however, and thankfully not lacking in any form of passion. British duo The Kills filled the vast lawn with their shitkicking blend of dirty blues, wasting no time with their opening cut “No Wow” and continuing into a devastating version of “Future Starts Slow.” There’s something vaguely menacing about the Kills, partly a combination of their bare bones stage show and stark black-and-white lights but mostly singer Alison Mosshart’s venomous howl and possessed stage presence. If Jack White wants to become relevant again, he’ll start hanging out with this chick a lot more.
My lone trek to the Sahara tent on Saturday resulted in perhaps my most satisfyingly weird experience of the festival: Shpongle. The “Shpongletron Experience,” as it was called, is hard for me to describe in words, although you can check out the video below. Suffice it to say, Shpongle made Animal Collective look like a fucking high school Green Day cover band. As a friend of mine commented afterwards: “I thought I just got transported to Mesoamerica circa 4,000 B.C. to witness a live human sacrifice.”
Speaking of Animal Collective, do people actually enjoy their live show? Perhaps I wasn’t on enough drugs, but the band’s set of mostly new songs was a garbled mess of LSD-influenced lights and sounds. But damn, those lights (designed by Black Dice) were pretty damn cool, regardless. Fans of your verse-chorus-verse song were mostly out of luck, treated instead to random noise experiments and obtuse vocal warbling. Not that this is always a bad thing, but Animal Collective’s seemingly aimless show had much of the audience content to stare at the lights and tune out. Even their one clear-cut song, closer “Summertime Clothes,” sounded like ten different remixes of the tune played on top of each other.
On the other end of the spectrum was electro-pop band Empire of the Sun, which tried way too hard to be weird and instead came off as that overlooked kid crying out for attention. Choreographed dancers, shirtless guitarists, costumes and hats that would make Louis XIV hide himself in shame; Empire of the Sun seemed to think it was more important to look cool than to sound cool. For all their bizarre getups and overproduced stage show, they were still playing Empire of the Sun songs, and after their two hits, there wasn’t too much there.
All my problems with the last two acts, however, were forgotten when Saturday headliners Arcade Fire finally walked onto the main stage to waves of applause. To call their set “epic” would be doing them a disservice – I had never thought of Arcade Fire as a quintessential live band, one that would be capable of playing an arena and totally rocking it out, but I’m a believer now. The band had obviously put a lot of time into the set list, cherry picking from their albums to deliver the hits they knew the fans would respond to the most. “Month of May;” “Rebellion (Lies);” “No Cars Go;” those were just the first three songs. Besides a bit of pitchiness from Regine Chassagne on “Haiti,” the band was spot on, no one more so than Win Butler. From his banter with the crowd before “Crown of Love” to his cocky wish that “maybe he’ll be able to come to Coachella one year as a spectator” to his near acapella performance of “Rococo,” just him and the drums with the faintest of strings, Butler was the life of the show. While no one expected the band to steal Sunday headliner Kanye West’s production thunder, they made quite the effort when they released a flood of LED balls over the festival during the climax of “Wake Up.” It caused a flood of movement amongst awestruck concertgoers, movement mirroring the frantic energy of the band, who almost always seemed to be throwing themselves into that song or the next. Fuck winning the Grammy – when you can put on a spectacle like this, you know you’ve arrived. Here’s to many more Arcade Fire headlines.