“I feel like I’m going to go home and throw up a sandbox for my small child,” Red Hot Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis cracked near the beginning of his band’s closing set Sunday night. At this point the sand was less of a nuisance and more an actual hazard, whipping up into your eyes, your mouth, your nose, your ears – my friend remarked that he entered Coachella as one race and came out another. The standard festival uniform transformed from baring as much skin as possible with an emphasis on neon colors to shutting everything off with anything at hand, turning a legion of fans into balaclava-wearing music terrorists. The gum I had been gnawing on for hours grew suspiciously in size as tiny particles added a bit of extra crunch to my mouth feel. The storm buffeted the main stage, whipsawing the sound across the festival grounds and turning Peppers mainstays like “Dani California” and “Can’t Stop” into warped contortions of themselves, as if the sound guy had had a bad case of epilepsy among the fade and balance dials. It wasn’t a great loss – as far as headliners go, the Red Hot Chili Peppers were the same-old-same-old, playing a strangely subdued set of hits and new songs that never really latched onto anyone. Sure, they were good – the rhythm combo of Chad Smith and Flea is still something to behold, but Kiedis’ audience interactions fell flat more often than not and the increasingly putrid weather made people bounce out instead of around. Hard to blame Coachella for this one, though: rumor has it that the Chili Peppers were the easy fling organizers called after the Rolling Stones ditched them just an hour before the lineup was announced back in January, and you can’t control the cosmic justice that the sandstorm brought upon them all.
Not to say that Sunday was a failure. Indeed, in comparison to the loaded prior days, I was relaxed and able to check off nearly everyone I had planned on seeing. Maybe the organizers planned it this way to accommodate my throbbing hangover and the assorted burnouts who trudged onto the festival grounds Sunday afternoon, either resigning themselves to a day of washing away their sorrows with Heineken or desperately searching for that missing Saturday night buzz with one (dozen) more pill. The first major set of the day was Kurt Vile and the Violators performing at the late-riser-friendly time of 4:00 pm on the Outdoor stage, where Vile’s languid guitar emoting unspooled over the grass in half time. The sound bleeding from other stages was not so kind to Vile and company – at one point, the long-haired frontman noted wryly, “Hey, the Boss sounds good over there, doesn’t he?” in response to the ongoing main stage set of the Gaslight Anthem. Vile’s short set split itself equally between 2011’s Smoke Ring for My Halo and this year’s superb Wakin On A Pretty Daze, and the way his band coalesced these songs together into sparkling jam sessions that twisted forth so deliberately into the gusting wind was enchanting.
One of my most anticipated sets of the weekend didn’t disappoint. Tame Impala took to the Outdoor stage to an outsized crowd naturally, despite their relative inexperience playing to an audience this size and my worries that their sound would not translate as well in such an open area. Those were unfounded – Kevin Parker’s voice is as flawless live as it is on record, and the band’s chemistry was tight and in a deep groove, playing off one another and having plenty of fun doing it. The highlights were an extended version of “Elephant,” which seemed to feature solos from each band member including a particularly thunderous drum riff, and Kevin Parker preparing to launch into another song when his band mates hurried up and pulled him away. Parker’s disappointment was palpable – it’s nice to see someone get so lost in their music and the festival environment that the whole regimented structure just disappears completely.
In the Mojave tent, Jessie Ware just seemed happy to be there, growing more confident as her mid-afternoon set continued on and injecting some necessary spice into her proceedings, which included a new disco-tinged single that bumped considerably hard. Even better was James Blake, who performed sitting down at his keys and provided exactly what the overflowing tent wanted – plenty of bass and that angelic voice. His set was grimier than I had anticipated, and his rendition of old fan favorite “CMYK” was arguably the most well received individual song of the weekend. Bringing me back to my high school days, though, was the Faint, a band I wasn’t even aware we still kicking around yet nevertheless managed to fill a night set under the Mojave. Lead singer Todd Fink looked borderline deranged throughout the performance, but the band’s hard electro backing and bass-heavy hooks were just what serotonin-depleted ravers leaking over from the nearby Sahara tent were looking for.
As the winds picked up, success came in a few specialized forms. Vampire Weekend destroyed the Law of the Main Stage with a performance that reinforced just how professional a band these young guys are. Ezra Koenig is one of the best live singers I’ve ever seen, and the band adeptly balanced classic tunes (“Oxford Comma” in particular) with newer, well-received songs from the upcoming Modern Vampires of the City. Unfortunately, my girlfriend is now very attracted to him. Pretty Lights on the Outdoor stage was less about constructing songs and more about, well, pretty lights, with one of the most elaborate light shows I had seen all weekend stretching out nearly to the middle of the festival grounds. The heavy bass vibes were nice, as well; being able to jam out to this music in the crowded but still relatively open grounds of the Outdoor stage was a nice change from the perpetually cramped Sahara.
That Sahara, though – if there was a time to go to it this weekend, it was during Canadian filthstep artist Excision presents the Executioner set Sunday night. The average fan may hear an Excision song and consign it to the virtual trash bin of roided-out brostep, but to hear Excision live is to experience something that would make your casual EDM listener ruin his pants after being assaulted by some absolutely offensive contortions of the brown note. Indeed, most of the people who had crowded the Sahara day in and day out throughout the weekend were nowhere to be found, allowing me to set up squarely in the front middle of the tent to get the full experience of Excision’s proprietary “Executioner” stage setup, which can best be described as Transformers as seen through the eyes of Beelzebub. Two friends who joined me had never seen Excision before. “Are they good,” one girl asked as the ominous whirring of machine parts signaled Excision’s arrival. “Oh yes, he’s good,” I said, laughing to me as I prepared to steel my stomach against the combination of bass and crab fries I had just eaten. As he dropped that first note, shaking my bones and brains and making me regret my decision to eat anything previously, I saw the look on her face turn into abject horror. Needless to say, she was executed sooner rather than later. Still the most relentless, merciless live electronic act I’ve seen, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Despite the overwhelming whiteness of the crowd and the likely possibility of the majority of the attendees wearing Wu-Tang Clan gear Sunday night knowing about two whole songs from the collective, there was little doubt that they owned their Outdoor headlining spot in a jubilant sort of way that the Red Hot Chili Peppers could only hint at. An expansive set that covered plenty of Enter the 36 Chambers, skipped around various member’s solo works and even brought out honorary member Redman to dominate “Da Rockwilder,” the Wu at times seemed overcome with energy, somewhat incomprehensible and occasionally disorganized. But that was part of their charm, too – an easiness and familiarity that percolated throughout the group and their whole set; a group that hasn’t performed live in years, mind you. More than anything else, the Wu looked and sounded like they were having the times of their lives playing together, turning the Outdoor stage into a shuffling party that did want to stop and drag itself over to the relatively tame Chili Peppers. It was the best encapsulation of Coachella and what the music festival as an art form can do – bring together a mass of disparate people and make them forget about everything – the weather, the time, the fact that they all had to return to their regularly scheduled lives the next day – and engender a moment they’ll never, ever forget. When Coachella nails something like the vibe the Wu-Tang Clan brought to the grounds on Sunday night, there’s no greater festival on the planet.
- Dutch house DJ Hardwell bringing what was reportedly the best mainstream electronic set of the weekend in the early evening at the Sahara tent.
- Grimes performing for the first time with a wireless microphone and thus being able to use her boundless energy to its fullest extent, moving around the stage like a whirling dervish. Too bad the Gobi was way too packed to adequately enjoy. Also, Katy Perry is a Grimes fan?
- The original Dinosaur Jr. lineup not letting the young’uns overtake them in a defiant late afternoon Outdoor stage set.
- Maya Jane Coles turning the intimate enclosure of the Yuma tent into her own personal, hotly attended playground – the line to get in stretched out way past reason.
- Cloud Nothings and DIIV turning in a contrasting study of buzz bands in the early hours of the Mojave tent: the former still full of so much piss and vinegar, actively campaigning for a later slot in the future; the latter, slack-jawed and hazy, content to float through some ghostly echoes and beautiful feedback.
- Top 5 Sets: 1) Franz Ferdinand; 2) Sigur Ros; 3) Tame Impala; 4) Phoenix; 5) Huoratron/FOALS
- See you guys next year!