Sunday is when the choices really start to gnaw at you. Choices like: “do I really need to wake up in time to see Surfer Blood at their surprisingly early Outdoor Stage time,” (no) or; “will this beer bong really help me reach my goal of not being utterly exhausted as I leave for the festival?” (yes). It’s also the day when the thought of braving particularly large crowds doesn’t hold quite the appeal it used to. While I was jazzed to see Los Angeles production duo Classixx at the Mojave, the filled-past-capacity mass of hollowed out youths and individuals fresh off two days in the hazardous waste dump that is the campgrounds on a Sunday made it a short set. Better were Starfucker, who, playing on the Outdoor Stage, made up for the searing heat with a wide expanse of glass to collapse on while watching their spacey brand of indie-pop. A relatively mundane, if nevertheless very catchy, band, Starfucker stepped up their festival game with a wide array of costumed freaks running about and several dozen blow-up dolls sporting impressive erections that they released into the crowd.
A double-punk bill of Frank Turner and Superchunk followed in the Gobi tent. While I’m not a big fan, Turner’s energy was infectious to a crowd that was largely dispersed and lying prostrate across the tent ground. “Welcome to show number 1376,” he announced as he launched into yet another rousing, furiously strummed singalong. Working 1376 shifts at any job requires an impressive amount of determination, yet Turner always makes it feel like his first day. Venerable Chapel Hill rockers Superchunk had no problems with getting the crowd into it, either. Frontman Mac McCaughan has the uncanny ability to make you question whether that eternally youthful voice coming out of the speakers is actually attached to the weathered middle age man it’s seemingly attached to. They tore through half of last year’s I Hate Music and a few cuts off Majesty Shredding, and while there was a hole where founding bassist Laura Ballance used to be (no longer touring with the band due to a medical condition), the band’s focus on the future was thrilling.
After catching ten minutes of AlunaGeorge’s packed set and snagging a paella dinner that would come back to haunt me, I set up shop at the Outdoor Stage for the Neutral Milk Hotel set at sundown. When I last saw Jeff Mangum playing a solo set at the exact same time and place two years ago, it was pleasant but disappointing, his solitary voice tending to crack under the weight of his tunes and unrealistic fan expectations. There were no such troubles this time around. I’m not even a huge acolyte of the seminal indie-folk band, but it was impossible not to appreciate their performance, which was equal parts engaging, sincere, and lovingly delivered to an intimate crowd elated to be a part of history. Mangum, looking like he just crawled out of a cabin, was the center of a group featuring three original members performing everything from trumpet to a steel saw and playing off each other with the easy rapport of longtime friends. It’s weird to say that a band like Neutral Milk Hotel played “all the hits,” given how well loved every aspect of their discography is among the faithful, but a run of “Holland, 1945,” “Rubby Bulbs,” and “Two-Headed Boy Pt. 2” carrying the show into the dark of the festival’s night is something to see. The crowd even (for the most part) followed Mangum’s request to put away all cell phones and cameras for the duration of the set, while the Coachella camera crew nominally responsible for editing the performances for the video screens on the spot were called off for the entirety of the show. It was a set you didn’t need help to remember.
When hot, one maxim of Coachella is to seek out the Do LaB, the stage/performance art/sculpture installation that marked its tenth year on the festival grounds this year. Manned by people sporting massive hoses and a wide spectrum of artists and DJs, from Chrome Sparks to LowRIDERz to Two Fresh to get the soaked crowd dancing, it’s the festival’s secret weapon to the heat and the crowds. Moved from its usual spot in the center of the fields to a more secluded spot by the equally throbbing Yuma tent, the Do LaB nevertheless maintained its aura as the festival’s preeminent intimate dance spot, a place to let loose and indulge in a vibe that is unique to the company’s brilliantly weird aesthetic. Fire dancers, outrageous costumes, acrobatics that wouldn’t be out of place at a Cirque du Soleil show – it’s an experience that never stops over the course of three days, set to a soundtrack of bass and bizarre vibes. To be honest, it’s a crime this electric environment hasn’t found a home at other large festivals across the country.
Crowd favorites over the course of the evening crossed a wide variety of sounds and demographics. Calvin Harris was the token DJ chose by the festival to rock the main stage for one time this weekend, and he played it as safely as you’d expect. Safe is not necessarily a bad word; the crowd was certainly into his brand of Top 40 drops, but there’s something to be said for taking the audience out of their comfort zone. Lana del Rey played to a surprisingly packed house at the Outdoor Stage and was getting a lot of buzz afterwards for how her voice and stage presence have improved since that disastrous SNL show years ago. Swedish group Little Dragon played to an overflow audience at the Mojave and jockeyed for position for buzz band winners of the weekend with CHVRCHES, Holy Ghost!, and Warpaint. Particularly unfortunate was Disclosure’s set on the Outdoor Stage, which predictably played to one of the most crowded fields of the weekend and who’s eclectic, bumping club mixes suffered in the open air of the stage. The special guest quotient (Mary J. Blige, Aluna Francis, and Sam Smith), however, was on point.
Yet none of the above received the universal appreciation that London legends Motörhead did late at night in the Mojave. When Lemmy Kilmister brought on Slash to jump into “Ace of Spades” near the close of their set, it was a reminder that no matter who you are, there’s going to be a crowd at Coachella in love with you. Also, how is Lemmy still standing, much less performing? This is a question I’m not sure can ever be answered, but Lemmy’s rumored heart condition required the presence of stretchers and emergency defibrillators off the side of the stage and, apparently, the shadow of death above everything. After all, the first thing that Google suggests when you type in his name is “Lemmy Kilmister dead.”
Few artists knew how to work the festival more than Beck, though. As one of the original headliners for the original Coachella, the Los Angeles songwriter was uniquely qualified to begin the closing duties for the weekend. He did not disappoint, immediately getting the crowd into it with ‘90s standbys “Devil’s Haircut” and “Loser,” classics that filled their necessary roles of getting a tired, lead-footed crowd back into things. With some artists – Queens of the Stone Age from Saturday come to mind – you can just tell that they’ve been performing for so long that putting on a killer show is second nature. Beck is that kind of artist, playing with the same band he’s played with since that last Coachella set and laying down a perfectly curated setlist that effortlessly segued from Morning Phase single “Blue Moon” (with a full moon overhead – you can’t plan this shit) to the devastating “Golden Age,” and then into the ironic funk of slow jam “Debra.” Even Beck’s 10-year-old son Cosimo proved the consummate professional, joining the band onstage and playing along with a tambourine to set closer “Where It’s At.” The same can’t be said for the festival overlords, who cut off Beck’s mic during the call-and-response portion of the song when he went over his set time by four minutes. Beck, of course, didn’t care – he joined his bandmates and son for a dance as the audience continued to bounce and the crew behind them started moving their instruments. After a group hug, Beck, Cosimo, and his band gave one last bow to a cheering audience and shuffled offstage.
For all the dissension over Arcade Fire’s latest record Reflektor, when that band has a huge stage all to themselves, they know how to entertain. Having cut their teeth as headliners at Coachella in 2011, the group showed no signs of stagnation with a 18-song set that spilled out over into the crowd. The band drew equally from their discography, and I have to admit, while Reflektor did nothing for me on record, live the songs never overstayed their welcome. Debbie Harry from Blondie came on stage near the end to duet on “Heart of Glass” with Regine Chassagne and also provide support for “Sprawl II,” the rare guest star that still had the capability to surprise, given that no one would have predicted Harry’s performance prior. There were bobbleheads, a dramatic fuck-the-VIP speech by Butler, and all manner of theatrical, We’re Having A Moment flourishes that festival audiences have come to expect from Coachella.
When Coachella announced its bedtime, though, Butler and company didn’t care. The power was kept on throughout the majority of “Wake Up,” despite Arcade Fire being well over their allotted set time, but the powers that be shut things down when it became apparent that the song, erm, wasn’t ending. Yet the band simply picked up their instruments, joining the Preservation Hall Jazz Band (who had played earlier in the day in the Mojave) and made their way into the crowd and around the field, playing an extended coda to “Wake Up” while the remaining thousands faithfully sung along. Hell, they kept playing until they reached the street, acoustics be damned. It was a fitting end to Coachella, a festival that is a bitch to get to, and, sure, is hard to appreciate under its heavy layer of corporate makeup and increasing tendency to cater to the lowest common denominator. Once you’re there, though, no matter who you are, it’s the kind of place no one wants to leave once it’s all said and done. Weekend two, anybody?
- Justin Bieber coming on stage for his buddy Chance the Rapper’s afternoon set and not immediately getting booed right off.
- Duck Sauce prepping their debut album Quack after years of hype and festival concerts by closing out the Sahara tent to a mammoth crowd and their trademark giant duck.
- No respect for Factory Floor, who made the best of an unconscionably early set at the Gobi and painstakingly recreated all of their tunes live.
- Another buzz band trying to reach that next level, the dance collective of Rudimental drawing in passerby into a stretched-out Mojave tent and succeeding on a grab bag of backbeats and rotating MCs and singers.
- Blood Orange covering Elvis with a sizable crew of friends during a prime late afternoon set at the Outdoor Stage.
Top 5 Sets
1. Future Islands
3. Queens of the Stone Age
4. Neko Case
5. Neutral Milk Hotel