“People of Coachella, lay down your arms.”
That was the straight-forward plea of bassist Nick Seymour of the reunited antipodean band Crowded House, addressed to the baying crowd of young men assembling at the foot of the main stage to see the headline act at this year’s Coachella Music Festival, Rage Against the Machine. Like silent assailants, they slid through the sea of festival-goers during fading light, an army of teenage boys in bandanas and black shirts with a post-Rage generation’s worth of testosterone to burn and little patience for adult pop more suited to their parent’s era.
“We want Rage! Get the fuck off the stage!,” came one chant, not long after one of myriad water bottle projectiles knocked over Neil Finn’s microphone during the omnipresent and prescient ballad “Don’t Dream it’s Over.” The fact that the song’s critique of apathetic middle-class malaise mines similar thematic territory to that of Rage’s denunciatory catalogue was lost, quite literally in this case, on the impatient youth. Worse still was the fact that this performance marks Crowded House’s first reunion tour since original drummer Paul Hester’s suicide two years ago. But the band soldiered on courageously, with a new Questlove-aping drummer and Neil’s son on keys injected into the line-up, amidst the sweaty thousands who had dutifully trekked out into the Californian desert to see a very different but similarly timeless band one more time.
“The Battle of Coachella,” read one popular knock-off t-shirt, echoing the infamous “Battle of Los Angeles” Rage tour of past. Their riotous live shows had quickly entered the realms of rock folklore, ever since Zack de la Rocha and the boys had shockingly split ways several years ago. And Coachella got what it had been thirsting for, delivered with all the majestic fury few bands have since touched. Rage Against the Machine, having raised an entire sub-genre—“rap rock”—through the blunt power with which they wield their tools, proved their continuing relevancy last Sunday with a stirring set of now classic songs. Emerging from self-imposed obscurity with a handsome new afro, Zack’s angry rhymes sounded as fresh and scything as ever, proving that even a vocalist as full-throated as Chris Cornell could never provide as satisfying an accomplice to guitarist Tom Morello and his signature pyrotechnics.
Opening with “Testify,” followed by the triumphant “Bulls on Parade,” the band tore their way through confident renditions of songs from each of their three studio releases. They surprised the audience with their popular cover of “Renegades of Funk” by Afrika Bambaataa before closing the main set with “Wake Up,” from their self-titled album. During the middle section of the song, Zach offered the diatribe the crowd had been waiting for, calling for the current administration to be “hung, tried and shot…in that order” as war criminals, which, surprisingly enough, received only an ambiguous response from the crowd. Rage soon returned to play an encore of “Know Your Enemy” which segued into “Killing in the Name,” leaving a stadium’s worth of fans with their flipped birds waving about in the air goofily, as if at a middle-school punk gig. Such irony was suitable for much of the crowd, for whom the band surely conjures memories of angrier, more hormonal years, a nostalgia quickly deflated by the wayward teens hurling themselves upon each other at the front of the stage.
As an Australian who grew up in the eighties humming Crowded House melodies before Rage caught my tortured teen soul at 15, effectively turning me on to politics and subsequent years of activism and advocacy, to me the irony made perfect sense. Only by obediently forking out almost three hundred dollars (!) and padding the pockets of both ticketmaster and music promoters could we earn the privilege of screaming hoary revolutionary epithets into the desert air. Though Morello continues to voice his Marxist politics with full conviction and de la Rocha’s lyrics call for open insurgency, the only bourgeois target who is assured of feeling the concert’s effects after Sunday were the mothers of bloody-nosed teens, washing their laundry after the show. As I rocked out to Rage’s three-minute thunderclaps before the massive red star backdrop of the EZLN–an anarchist group in Zapata, Mexico–I admitted internally that all of this was, at some level, a farce. The revolution that sounded so righteously forthcoming in junior high, now, just sounds righteous. A “fist in the air in the land of hypocrisy,” indeed.
Beyond the much-anticipated headliner’s altogether victorious return, Coachella itself was a joy-filled rollercoaster hajj of indie music: part post-modern reversal of the flight of the Jews, part Who’s Who List of 2007. Over 100 bands from an eclectic mix of musical walks, five separate stages, multiple extortion-lite beer tents and a curious mix of environmental booths and neo-apocalyptic vaudeville were laid out over Empire Polo fields in the diminutive town of Indio, California, where 70,000 odd revelers descended for this, the 7th year in the festival’s history. For three days, we parched under the cloudless sun, exacerbating our dehydration with cups of Heineken and greasy stall food before taking grateful relief under the preciously laid out tents. All this in the name of music, the established faith of secular young America. For this longtime Coachella aspirant, whose first year out of tertiary education engendered both the time and disposable income to make the pilgrimage, I was an instant convert. Though there are a number of yearly festivals now in practice throughout the United States, I know of none that can match Coachella, blow for blow, in terms of depth, quality and variety of musical fulfillment.
From the thoroughly fleshed out performer’s list, one can draw LA populist perennials Rage and Red Hot Chili Peppers, legendary reunited groups Jesus and Mary Chain and Happy Mondays, leading mainstream hip hop (Roots) and backpack (El-P, Busdriver) acts, scruffy buzz bands from across the pond (Arctic Monkeys, Fratellis) outstanding international talents (Manu Chao, Konono No. 1,), electronic mainstays (Tiesto, Gotan Project) and timeless country legends (Willie Nelson), to name but a few. The weekend quickly turned into a series of hard decisions, as adjacent acts of prodigious talent led to continuous dilemmas–“Air versus Lily Allen” (easily answered by the former’s tardy entrance) or “!!! versus the Decembrists.”
“Should I take the risk on (highly touted but unknown indie act) Coco Rosie in the Gobi, space out to trance with the ravers over at Sahara, or catch the cell phone waving to “Under the Bridge” back at main stage?” we asked one another, squirting hand sanitizer into our hands. Never before have I eaten a plastic plate dinner as epic as that soundtracked by Manu on one stage and Air on the other. Even an act as uncelebrated as pooping became epic: as I took a deep breath, dashed into the portaloo and tried to think of fluffy clouds, Blonde Redhead’s incredible “23” came shuddering through the plastic can to backdrop my dropping.
At the conclusion of each evening, I would reassemble with my crew of fellow revelers at our designated meeting spot, a giant tesla coil which periodically shot out bolts of lightning, offering even more entertainment to those for whom a dozen mini-gigs in a day was not quite enough. Past horse sheds we would trek, returning to our dust-covered cars for the snail crawl out of Indio to nearby Palm Springs, where we had taken out three condos for the weekend. Having washed from our tired bodies a peculiar mixture of sun block, spilled beer, sanitizer, grass seeds and human sweat (of which the majority was not our own), we reflected, analyzed and then strategized for the following day’s proceedings. Though the bands started playing shortly after 1pm, the less adventurous of us laid low until later in the afternoon, trading off heat stroke and more minor acts for the benefits of poolside cocktails and Nintendo Wii boxing matches. The fifth-year USC architecture majors amongst us snuck in morning thesis sessions; I studied set schedules instead, laughing as my diminutive friend displayed her surprisingly sharp skills as a joystick pugilist, pummeling her boyfriend out of the virtual ring.
Of all the acts outside of the frat-tastic Chili Peppers, perhaps Bjork was the most universally adored. Indie’s reigning princess-queen, she closed the first night’s proceedings in nothing short of regal brilliance. On stage, she is a lithe, dynamo performer, thoroughly engaging both in her nymphish physicality and the recurrently wondrous epiphany that such a remarkable sound is indeed emanating from the lungs of that tiny woman wearing the space suit. She played a handful of songs from her excellent new LP, “Volta,” but it was the singles which won over a rapturous crowd. “Army of Me” opened its wings slowly, almost ominously, before releasing itself over the refrain through Bjork’s electrifying, drawn out exhale. “Hyperballad” was the evening’s clincher, an emotive ballad which stands as a timeless high point in the Icelandian’s still ascending sonic travails. However, in the ensuing post-show analysis, a friend–himself a Bjork hyper-fan who had patiently waded his way to the front of the stage–pointed out what he saw as serious flaws in that song’s performance: apparently, when the pre-programmed bass came in, it was noticeably off-key against the horns, upon which Bjork modulated keys, somewhat unsuccessfully. It was testament to her skill and live prowess as an artist that the majority of the crowd realized nothing, but for the most tuned-in listeners.
As enchanting as it was to see the virtuosic queen perform live, it couldn’t match the intimacy of Julieta Venegas, who I had seen earlier in the day in the Gobi tent, the smallest of the stages, trafficked by more obscure acts. Julieta, a native of Tijuana, Mexico and long-standing crush of this non-Spanish speaker, writes cheerful accordion pop songs that your mother can hum along to. This being southern California, the crowd was majority Latino, and Chicano pride ran high.
I discussed Mexican indie bands with an art student from Bakersfield before our princess took to the stage in a bright purple dress, looking to all the world like God’s true gift to man as she grooved out to “Eres Para Mi,” which sounds like an Ace of Base B side. We cheered and hollered, before the men in the audience released a simultaneous sigh of collective yearning. Slapping away at her familiar red accordion, Julieta made the instrument look sexier than I’d previously thought possible, dispelling any remaining visions of suspender-clad polka bands as she spun her way through the dancier cuts and gently rolled through the ballads. Alternating fluently between Spanish and English to the largely bilingual crowd on topics of relationships (sigh) and marriage (longer sigh), her beauty and refinement stood as a light of hope for her countrymen here, the hidden thousands whose futures lie tenuously at the whim of xenophobic power. “Lento” and “Andar Conmigo“, a moving tribute to naivete and young love, were the two obvious crowd favorites. During “Limon Y Sal,” two men wearing pig masks and green fatigues took to Julieta’s flanks, briefly and curiously marching about on stage before quickly departing. Julieta ended with the single “Me Voy” from her most recent album, and for the first time in a long while, I felt butterflies take flight inside my chest.
Of the groups I had been less intimately familiar with, Andrew Bird and Faithless were two real standouts. Bird, a singer-songwriter from Minnesota who plays folksy, orchestral pop songs, reminds me of a young Sufjan Stevens, except that Bird actually plays the string parts in his songs. He moved fluidly between numerous instruments during the same song, and his lyricism, particularly on “Imitosis,” is already well polished. Not quite so new to the scene, British act Faithless rocked Sahara as hard as anybody I saw in the dance tent over the three days. Theirs is a silky mix of trip hop and jungle, with enough world influence to make references to Massive Attack and Morcheeba feel lazy. I also only caught short segments of Amos Lee and Teddy Bears, but was impressed by the snippets I caught. The former’s baritone voice is inviting like honey and his bluesy craftsmanship as a composer undeniable; Teddy Bears provided an all-out rocktronica party, bear costumes and all.
Coachella makes its name on indie bands, and I caught the obvious fragments I sought whilst drifting between various tents enough to make the extra effort out in the heat valuable. “Young Folk” by Peter, Bjorn and John was this year’s biggest sing-along amongst the Pitchfork crowd; “Let’s Make Love” by CSS and “Don’t Stop” by Brazilian Girls were road-tested, sultry favorites. I was too exhausted to truly appreciate LCD Soundsystem’s Saturday show, leaving early to pass out by Gotan Project, but Hot Chip and !!! both brought the dance punk might. I was pleasantly surprised to see the crowd grow steadily during Konono No. 1’s Sunday afternoon gig. The Congolese dance group provided a more subdued but polyrhythmically funkier soundscape for 20-something white girls to perform their “hippy white girl dance,” which, as one friend noted, after several decades, remains in persistent and unfortunately regular circulation. The only real disappointments for me were both of the British isles: Jarvis Cocker’s self-deprecating wit couldn’t hide the datedness of his solo material, and the Good, the Bad and the Queen sounded lethargic and flat.
I’ll leave it to others to gush, but let it be agreed that Arcade Fire is at present the world’s most important band. Their Saturday set on the main stage was nothing short of earth-shaking, though the material from sophomore album “Neon Bible” still didn’t match up to the highs from “Funeral,” the most superlative of which were “Wake Up” and “Rebellion.”
Besides the music, the crowd itself was a fascinating mix of largely 20-something music aficionados, young families, testy Rage heads and the sort of white dread hippies that invariably end up at such events. For the most part, the group was remarkably appreciative and self-controlled. Even the show grounds were being kept clean this year, thanks to an ingenious recycle-10-bottles, get-1-free deal going on water, the festival’s most precious commodity. Being consciously Asian that I am, I reveled in the hundreds (if not thousands!) of fellow yellow brethren, as well as the growing Latino and Black representation in an indie music community which remains largely pale of tone. Whilst waiting for Air, I struck up a conversation with a surfer couple from Long Beach who had brought their baby boy to his first Coachella. Going by his limited reaction capacity (he was drinking from his mother’s teat during our discussion), his father was convinced of his son’s appreciation for earlier performances. Now that is a truly great way to raise your children.
The crew I attended with happened to be split between a convivial collection of techy graphic artists and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs from Texas and California now based in San Diego nearing their 30s, and recent private college grads just settling into our 20s. Being millenials, naturally, we claimed descents from Africa, Iran, India, Mexico, China, Vietnam, Australia and Europe. I find that as hackneyed and ossified as discourse around multiculturalism has become, I would put forth that our parent’s greatest victory last weekend can be claimed on the grounds of Coachella. Spread across a giant polo field, perspiring mercilessly beneath the desert sun, together we watched a gorgeous sunset over the main stage at an even more beautiful venue. And, though some immature tool might have knocked over Neil’s microphone during “Don’t Dream It’s Over,” the act which followed was infinitely more symbolic: on-stage, as they scrambled to readjust the mic, Neil motioned to the crowd to step in. And we did so with gusto, singing:
“Hey Now Hey Now, Don’t Dream It’s Over, When the world comes in/They come, they come/To put a wall between us/You know they won’t win.”
And, in this time of families being ripped apart by immigration crackdowns and wasteful bloodshed across other lands, it’s precisely such unity that lends hope to this particular dreamer.